Teaching Legislators By Becoming One
A dozen full-time and retired teachers are running for the Statehouse this year. All are Democrats. Many are long-shots.. And most got involved because of Senate Bill 5.
O’Connor: “I’m a teacher, I’m not a politician.”
Meet Donna O’Connor.
She’s running for state representative in House District 21, northwest of Columbus as a Democrat.
The special education teacher hopes her lack of political experience will help her beat one-term Republican Mike Duffey.
She is encouraged by and has the financial backing of Ohio’s largest teachers union. And the National Education Association has put 1.4 million into an Ohio superpac that is targeting Republicans like Duffey.
The ad includes the phrase “Mike Duffey actually cut funding for our children’s schools when we needed it most.”
O’Connor acknowledges the fight over Senate Bill 5 got her started, and says protecting public schools and union rights are among her key issues.
“I can spend another 20, 25 years in the classroom and I can affect 15 or 20 kids every single day with the decisions I make as a teacher. But what is motivating to me is that, as a legislator, I can affect every student across the state of Ohio with the decision I can make inside the Statehouse.”
She says the classroom will help her navigate the Statehouse.
“Teachers are exactly what we need down at the statehouse because they’ve had many years of practice of managing unruly and immature objects and students in their classroom.”
Inside the Hudson library, Kristina Daley Roegner is holding office hours.
(We hear sounds of ad) “Kristina Daley Roegner gets it. Kristina Daley Roegner for State Representative.”
Roegner is an incumbent representing northern Summit County. She was one of the many Republicans who backed Senate Bill 5. Her Democratic opponent is Tom Schmida, who just retired after 40 years of teaching.
“He seems like a nice gentleman.”
Roegner says education issues are important to her, too. But good teaching and teachers unions are not synonymous, she says. And she worries that teachers inspired by the collective bargaining battle may be running for the wrong reasons.
“I think there is a very real concern that perhaps there might be some underlying self-interest there to protect either their own industry, their own unions. And that would honestly not be the best for Ohio. When it comes to education we need to put the students interests first, not the unions interests.”
Schmida says there’s nothing so narrow about his candidacy. At a Young Democrats event in downtown Akron, the former mayor of a village of 34-hundred called Reminderville, recalled a discussion in a government class of nearly 30 seniors last year.
“Government class, seniors, last year and a class of about 28 students and in the course of the discussion that day I said how many of you after high school grad and whatever post-secondary education or opportunities you’re going to pursue are going to stay in this r egion in NE Ohio. Five hands went up.”
And while he believes voters care about education, he knows they have bigger concerns.
“Quite frankly the primary concerns they have are around jobs and the economy, but that’s inexorably linked to education.”
Schmida doesn’t expect voters to have the same passions that Senate Bill 5 stirred up a year ago.
Neither does Stephen Brooks.
“Appropriately I think average voters really take on these things sequentially.”
Brooks is a political scientist with the Bliss Institute at the University of Akron.
“Once they make the decision, they assume it’s off the table.”
And Brooks says it’s likely average voters care a lot less about Senate Bill 5 than these teacher-candidates do. Still, if they win, the teachers are likely to ratchet up the profile of education in the Statehouse.
“If you’re a doctor, they’re more than likely to talk to you about medical issues. If you’re a teacher you become a logical person to talk to about education issues if you want it to be a bipartisan conversation.”
That’s exactly what these teachers are banking on.