Read: The larger concerns behind the teachers’ strikes
But there are some pretty significant caveats, and together they are reason enough to doubt the overall picture. First: The NEA uses the word educator liberally, counting essentially anyone who currently works in or used to work in an education-related job, such as professors, guidance counselors, and school administrators. Other definitions have yielded drastically different numbers. After the Education Week reporter Maddy Will and her colleagues conducted their own analysis—consulting teachers’-union rosters, thoroughly reviewing news-media coverage, and verifying information they received through online submissions—they concluded that the number of teacher political candidates (meaning people currently working as K–12 teachers) in 2018 was 177—less than a tenth of NEA’s count.
Second: There isn’t a reliable set of data to which the 2018 figures can be compared. In fact, an analysis by the Wall Street Journal reporter Michelle Hackman found that while the NEA asserts that 1,600 educators ran in 2016 (about 200 fewer than this year), the DLCC puts the number at 1,629 for 2016—173 more than it says ran this year. These discrepancies, and the glaring gap between the NEA tally and conclusions drawn by Education Week, may come down to the inconsistent ways in which candidate lists are compiled from state to state and organization to organization.
Nevertheless, it is the case that teachers are having a moment, likely emanating from a series of high-profile walkouts earlier this year. In late February, teachers across West Virginia staged a strike demanding higher wages and better school conditions, inspiring their counterparts in other states to follow suit. Many of the educators had never before engaged in politics. Of the 177 teachers that Education Week tracked, 41 won last night, and most of them were Democrats. (That number could rise to 42, as one race has yet to be called.) The victors include 13 teachers in Arizona, Kentucky, Oklahoma, and West Virginia—four of the states that experienced the most educator activism this year.
Read: West Virginia’s teachers are not satisfied.
Perhaps the hype around the wave of teacher candidates and the assumption that they have shifted the country’s priorities on education were overblown, as the American Enterprise Institute’s Frederick Hess has suggested. In a recent Gallup poll, for example, just 2 percent of voters identified education as the most important problem facing the nation. That being said, evidence of the reach of teacher activism has surfaced in all kinds of ways this year, such as voter opposition to school-voucher proposals, unusually contentious elections for schools superintendent, and a body of survey data showing a spike in support for raising teachers’ pay.