Labor Voices: Educators run for change in classrooms
Last spring’s surge of educator walkouts from West Virginia to Oklahoma, North Carolina, Kentucky, Colorado, and Arizona revealed the force behind a different political wave crashing on shores across the country this fall: educators running for office.
In April and May thousands of teachers and school employees descended on state capitols en masse to demand adequate state funding for public education, demonstrating soaring frustration following years of neglect and disrespect.
Now in many places that energy is flowing to the more diffuse but no less urgent work of winning seats of power. Nationally, more than 500 educators are running for state-level office. Here in Michigan, over a dozen educators will compete in November’s election for positions in the state Legislature.
Spurred by damaging policies that have created a teacher shortage, these candidates hope to use leadership skills developed in the classroom to lift voices too long ignored in the legislative arena.
“If elected, I will not only be the voice but the roar for teachers and students in Michigan,” New Haven teacher Dayna Polehanki said of her bid for the 7th District state Senate seat.
Polehanki, a high school English teacher named her district’s 2018 “Teacher of the Year” is one of two MEA members running for office in northwestern Wayne County. Plymouth resident Matt Koleszar—an AP government teacher in neighboring Monroe County—is also a candidate for the state house.
“The repeated attacks on education over the last eight years have brought me to this point,” Koleszar said. “Our current representative supports putting guns in schools. School boards, administrators and teachers oppose it, but most importantly—kids and parents oppose it.
“At some point I realized, enough is enough.”
These educators-candidates have for months engaged in the grinding work of campaigning: knocking on doors, recruiting volunteers, fundraising, and pressing the flesh at parades, county fairs and other community events.
Education is at the top of voter issues they hear about on front porches, Polehanki and Koleszar say.
“Betsy DeVos is a huge issue for people,” said Polehanki, a Livonia resident who would represent that city, plus Plymouth, Northville, Canton and Wayne if elected to the Senate. “They’re very concerned about diverting taxpayer money to for-profit charters. Only by adequately funding public schools and eliminating the profit motive will we become a top-10 education state.”
In northern Michigan, retired special education nurse Kathy Wiejaczka is running in the 101st House district. The part-time Ferris State University instructor is showing that educators can be competitive candidates all over the state. “The message I have for demoralized teachers and faculty in Michigan is that many of us are trying to change the level of disrespect that we see for our educators,” she said. “This is the change I’m fighting for.”
Nate Shannon, a L’Anse Creuse economics and history teacher, is running for the 25th District House seat. The son of teachers, Shannon says he is motivated by his disappointment in the Legislature’s “dismantling of Michigan’s once proud system of education. Numerous studies have found that Michigan is under-funding school districts by thousands of dollars per pupil. We must restructure school funding to help our students succeed in the 21st Century economy,” Shannon said.
For years we’ve been sending this message to policymakers: “Ask Me.” Ask professional educators about policies that will work in the classroom. Listen to us before enacting changes in the way we educate our students.
Educators have discovered their voice—not simply to ask policymakers to listen to them—but to make the personal and professional sacrifice to run for office themselves. They feel empowered to be the change they seek in our schools.
Paula Herbart is president of the Michigan Education Association.
Labor Voices columns are written on a rotating basis by United Auto Workers President Gary Jones, Teamsters President James Hoffa, Michigan AFL-CIO President Ron Bieber and Michigan Education Association President Paula Herbart.