Teachers take matters into their own hands by running for office

November 30, 2018 GMT

After spending about 25 years in the classroom, Pam Gerard is convinced: Kids are kids, no matter where you teach.

“You walk into any school in the United States -- and I’ve taught at the poorest of the poor and the richest of the rich -- you walk into a school and you hear the same sounds, and the same smells and the same activities going on no matter where you go,” said Gerard, who moved to Uniontown about five years ago from Texas, where she taught in public schools around Houston. She’s worked as a substitute teacher at Laural Highlands for the past two years.

These days, the former physical and special education teacher is worried: She wonders if students will be prepared for life after high school, and whether they know about options for technical education.

She lost her son to a drug overdose in 2007, and said she wants to see more mental health counselors in schools and more funding to support after-school activities and community programs. She’s concerned that schools are underfunded -- classroom technology is necessary, but expensive, and grant funding is competitive -- and believes teachers need more support.

“I just couldn’t sit back and watch it any longer,” said Gerard, now the Democratic candidate for Pennsylvania’s 32nd state Senate District, which includes the areas of Monessen, Rostraver and Mt. Pleasant in Westmoreland County and all of Fayette and Somerset counties.

Gerard is one of at least three educators from Southwestern Pennsylvania on the ballot Tuesday. As a first-time candidate, she’s a lot like the dozens of teachers nationwide who have jumped into local and state elections with issues related to education at the top of their platforms.

An analysis from the education news outlet Education Week shows that there are at least 160 teachers candidates running for state legislatures nationwide. Many of the teachers listed in that report -- which only included current classroom teachers -- are from Arizona, Kentucky, Oklahoma and West Virginia, where public school teachers went on strike or protested in 2018 to demand higher salaries and better benefits for school staff, as well as more school funding.

The report includes one teacher from Pennsylvania, Conrad Warner, who ran a successful write-in campaign for a spot as the Democratic candidate for the state House seat in the 63rd District. The district includes parts of Armstrong and Forest counties and all of Clarion County. Warner is a high school social studies teacher at Keystone Junior-Senior High School.

The National Education Association, the largest teachers’ union in the country, offers a more generous estimate. The union puts the number of school personnel -- teachers, support staff and administrators at the kindergarten through college levels -- running for state legislative seats at 1,500, though it’s unclear how many of those candidates are current or former educators, and how many are first-time candidates.

The list includes 46 candidates from Pennsylvania -- 30 Democrats and 16 Republicans -- most of them running for seats in the House.

“The fight for funding, the fight for resources, the fight for innovation, the fight for new ideas -- They’re getting weary,” said Sharon Guidi, the Democratic candidate for the state House seat in the 40th District, regarding why she thinks teachers nationwide have decided to run.

Guidi, 63, of Peters Township, Washington County, has worked at public and private schools in the Pittsburgh area as a pre-school and first-grade teacher. She also worked as a Head Start coordinator in Washington and Greene counties from 2013-15.

She’s most recently served as a substitute in the Canon-McMillan School District and as a supervisor for students studying to be teachers in the early childhood education program at the University of Pittsburgh.

The 2016 election served as a wake-up call “that we can’t just be sitting on the sidelines,” Guidi said. She got involved in local campaigns, including Conor Lamb’s 2018 special election run in the 17th Congressional District, before launching her campaign earlier this year.

In addition to pushing for more funding for public schools, the former teacher said that she’s a proponent of universal preschool. She’s also interested in taking a closer look at standardized testing and charter school accountability.

“So many people are decision makers about education and classrooms, and, yet, they probably haven’t been in a classroom for years and years,” Guidi said.

So when it comes to writing laws about schools, she thinks teachers can do it better because they’ve been on the front lines.

“They see that they don’t have proper funding, they see that they don’t have the resources, they see that there are children in the classroom that need extra help,” Guidi said. “So how do you get them the extra help when you don’t have the funding? How do they get the resources they need? How do you get technology in the classroom? There’s a lot of things that teachers are seeing, and they’re frustrated.”

Education spending on pre-k through 12th grade in Pennsylvania makes up about 37 percent -- or $12.3 billion -- of the state’s $33 billion in general fund expenditures, according to the 2018-19 state budget, passed in June.

“I see everything from people not having enough food to eat, all the way to people having struggles just kind of having their day-to-day life work, because they have to get children to daycare and they have to get to a job, and maybe in the mix of that have a child who needs special equipment,” said Michele Knoll, the Democratic state House candidate in the 44th District.

She has spent the past 14 years in the homes of the region’s youngest learners, working as a developmental specialist for children under 3 years old with developmental delays or disabilities. Knoll transitioned to that career after teaching in Catholic schools and working as a staff educator at the Carnegie Science Center.

Knoll, 62, of Ohio Township, Allegheny County, previously served on the Avonworth School Board. She started thinking about running about four years ago, but started seriously considering it after traveling to Washington, D.C., for the Women’s March in January 2017. Knoll organized a bus of Pittsburgh-area marchers and met many people who encouraged her to run during that trip.

“Being concerned that the current administration at the federal level was not going to be supporting the issues that I was concerned about was probably the tipping point,” Knoll said. Education and environmental protection are both issues at the top of her platform, as is working to make sure families have adequate health insurance.

“At the state level, we can really hold the line,” she said. “If things fall at the federal level, we can hold the line environmentally, we can hold the line on education.”