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Issues and Impact

Educators and allies fighting for public schools.

Leading the Way

Tired of politicians who fail public schools, educators prepare themselves to run for office

The spark that became Kyrstin Delagardelle Shelly’s successful quest for elected office was lit by the outcome of the 2016 presidential election, and came to a head in February when the Iowa governor and state legislature in her home state stripped 184,000 educators, nurses, firefighters, and other public service workers of their right to collectively bargain work conditions.

The spark became a flame when the teacher-librarian and two dozen other educators graduated from NEA’s first-ever “See Educators Run” training program.

In September—just as this magazine went to press—the flame took hold when Delagardelle Shelly’s desire to “contribute more meaningfully to our kids’ futures,” delivered her a campaign win for an at large seat on the Des Moines Public Schools board. 

“I want to bring an educator’s perspective to the board as well as my perspective as a librarian, progressive, and multiracial woman,” says Delagardelle Shelly, who becomes  the first Hispanic female to hold this position in Des Moines.

The NEA candidate training program is designed to give educators the tools and support they need to succeed at the ballot box and expand the reach of their advocacy for students and communities.

“The training program helped to add to my confidence that I can make a difference inside and outside the classroom,” says Delagardelle Shelly, 29. “In August, I went to school and blocked out the campaign to focus on my kids. Now, I’ll do schoolwork then go home to my other desk.”  

Like Delagardelle Shelley, Loranzo Andrews says it’s high time educators be among the elected leaders who make policies and pass laws on behalf of public service workers and students.

“There are politics involved in every aspect of my students’ lives,” says Andrews, a paraeducator from Memphis, Tenn. The NEA training “positions us so we are not just window shopping, looking at the conversation going on, and wishing we were there.”

Shaping Laws That Affect Education

Denise Gray wants to put an end to unaccountable charter schools being able to close in the middle of the school year, “dump” students in neighborhood public schools, and walk away with taxpayer funding—no questions asked. The Lexington, Ky., special education paraeducator says, “Our students of color need to see people like them in leadership roles.”

A former lawyer interested in running for her county commission and ultimately the state legislature, Gray says, “My students inspired me to become involved politically. You have people making laws about education who have never set foot in the classroom.”

The day and a half training, the second of which is set for October, walks educators through various aspects of a campaign, including fundraising, communicating with voters, field operations, writing a campaign plan, and policy resources. NEA provides ongoing services after the educators launch their campaigns.

Robin Aslakson retired from a rural district in Fremont, Mich., in 2014. Self-described as “socially liberal and fiscally conservative,” she says she worries about public education if educators don’t run for office.

“With the classroom cuts, with pay freezes and with higher health insurance premiums, if teachers don’t step up to the plate, they will find things will go downhill fast,” says Aslakson, a former elementary school teacher.   

Giving Educators the Tools to Win and Govern

Carrie Pugh, NEA director of Campaigns and Elections, said the program’s goal is to “fill the pipeline with local educators who will be in office for years to come, who are passionate about our issues, who know their students by name, and are attuned to the needs of their communities.”

While educators bring a unique perspective to public office, the thought of campaigning and governing can be daunting.
“The first step out of the classroom is the scariest one,” Delagardelle Shelley says. “Last November (the presidential election) happened, and I realized it wasn’t just enough for me to be an informed citizen and to try to educate students to become future citizens. I had to be involved more.”    



Meet Keron Blair

He’s One of public education’s fiercest defenders

As director of the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools (AROS), Keron Blair spends his days fighting to make sure “public education doesn’t die on our watch.” “We’re at war and you can’t operate with the same set of rules,” he says. NEA EdJustice caught up with Blair recently at NEA’s Conference on Racial and Social Justice.

NEA: As you talk with public educators and students around the country, what gives you heart?

Blair: When I came to this country from Jamaica 20 years ago, the time I spent at Roosevelt High School in New York was critical in my adjustment to this country, preparing me for college, and setting me up for the life I live now. Public education is the gateway and if we lose that, we’re damming a whole lot of people to a blighted future. I’m committed to preventing that from happening. 

NEA: In the Trump and DeVos era, how do we keep hope alive?

Blair: At NEA’s Conference on Racial and Social Justice, a friend said it’s easier to be brave when you’re surrounded by brave people. When I was there, surrounded by thousands of people who are giving everything to this fight, it made me breathe a little easier and gave me hope that we can win.

NEA: You’ve been involved in many social justice issues—labor rights, LGBTQ rights, and public education. What’s your take-away from that experience?

Blair: The reality is we don’t live our lives in silos. I walk in the world as a Black, queer, immigrant and my life mirrors this. People want to live their whole lives and be activists as their whole selves. The economy, jobs, schools, legal system all exist in connected ways and we have to run campaigns that reflect that.

NEA: What’s your vision for public education?

Blair: It’s a multi-pronged vision, starting with a deep investment in our public schools. Public schools have been starved, which leads to schools that underperform. Then they’re closed and turned over to private business.

Next, if we are going to talk about public education, we have to talk about race—how opportunities expand if you’re White and contract if you’re Black or Brown. That’s a disservice to our educators and students. In addition, we need school climates where young people feel supported, welcomed, and respected and the relationship between schools and prisons is severed. Finally, public schools should be hubs where community involvement is supported and not restricted.

NEA: AROS protests swept the nation last year. What are you organizing for the fall?

Blair: Our back-to-school focus is a coordinated effort around the education budget and the proposed cuts Trump wants to make to public schools. We’ve got to push back on these cuts and advance a vision of what a well-resourced public school should look like.”    



Educators Helped Score These Policy Wins for Students and Democracy

By EducationVotes and EdJustice Reporting Teams

State and local policymakers are responsible for scores of decisions that affect families and kids, including decisions about public education. That’s why educator and parent activism is so critical during state legislative sessions, city or town council meetings, and school board proceedings. Here are examples of educator activism that helped score a win for public education and the common good. 

Nevada Cuts Voucher Funding

In Nevada, educators, parents, and community activists helped to strip funding from the state’s voucher program by testifying at hearings, attending rallies, writing letters, and managing phone banks and social media campaigns. Educators set the stage for this win by electing pro-public education candidates to the state legislature in 2016.

“The whole combined effort is what helped us get across the finish line,” says Phil Kaiser, a Reno-based educator and activist.

“It’s a great win for everybody in our state,” adds educator Susan Kaiser, who is also married to Phil.

Maryland Gets a Grip on Testing

Educators and allies in Maryland have successfully put a cap on how much time schools can dedicate to testing. The More Learning, Less Testing Act will eliminate an estimated 730 hours across 18 districts when the cap goes into effect during the 2018 – 2019 school year.

It was a three-year effort. First, educators wanted all the facts on the table, so they advocated for the 2015 law that created the Commission to Review Maryland’s Use of Assessments in Public Schools. During the 2015 – 2016 school year, educators launched a public awareness campaign to explain how over-testing takes away valuable instruction time and narrows the curriculum.

Maryland State Education Association President Betty Weller called the effort “a huge step in rolling back the disruptive and counterproductive over-testing culture.”

Washington Budgets for School Success

Washington state educators were fed up with severe underfunding for public education when they “Occupied Olympia” for nearly three weeks. They visited the capitol daily, sang labor songs in the rotunda, distributed their Student Bill of Rights, and talked to everyone they could.

Washington Education Association (WEA) members worked throughout the legislative session sending thousands of postcards and emails to legislators, organizing dozens of political events, including a rally on the capitol steps that drew 6,500 people in January.

“We’re losing kids,” says Clarene Ricarte, an educator for 37 years. “They’re dropping out because we can’t support them as needed.”

Thanks to the efforts of activists like her, legislators passed a budget that increases K–12 state funding by $7.3 billion over four years.

California Districts Stand up to Protect Students

School districts in California are protecting immigrant students by adopting safe zone resolutions—going on record that they won’t allow immigration enforcement agents into their schools without a review process. At least 40 districts have passed, or are in the process of passing, safe zone legislation. These guidelines “amplify the rights that students and schools already have,” explains NEA senior counsel Emma Leheny, who drafted sample resolutions for K–12 and higher ed campuses to educate school staff about the protections they can legally offer students. 

More at

North Carolina Restores Voting Rights

The U.S. Supreme Court refused to consider reinstating the 2013 North Carolina voting law that a U.S. Appeals Court had ruled unconstitutional because it acted “with almost surgical precision” to suppress the vote of African Americans.

Ever since North Carolina enacted restrictions on when, where, and how people could vote—restrictions that disproportionately harmed students, the poor, and people of color—civil rights activists have fought back in the courts, the statehouse, and in the streets.

Among those marching to overturn the North Carolina law have been educators like teacher Bryan Proffitt, president of the Durham Association of Educators.

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