From The Classroom To The Campaign Trail, More Maine Educators Are Running For Office

Jul 27, 2018

Teacher strikes in Oklahoma and West Virginia this year have put educators in the political spotlight, and some of that energy appears to have spread to Maine. After years of conflict over school funding and educational mandates, more than a dozen current and former teachers are running for office this fall.

With the same energy that she used to bring to her classroom, Jan Dodge is spending a Tuesday afternoon knocking on doors in her hometown of Belfast.

Dodge retired from teaching eight years ago, and is now a candidate for her local state House seat. She's one of at least 15 current and former teachers in Maine who are running for the state legislature. It's a number that the Maine Education Association believes is an increase from past years, though the union hasn't monitored activity in previous races.

Dodge says her journey from educator to politician began in a small, rural high school in Sullivan, east of Ellsworth, where she taught for 30 years. Dodge loved the students and community, but struggled with basic supplies.

“Not enough classroom space, not enough desks," she says. "Not up-to-date textbooks, needed new whiteboards. It was a never ending list. And we couldn't ever seem to get ahead of the game, so that we could take a breath. We felt like we were sinking."

So when she retired from teaching in 2010, she became well-acquainted with the halls of the state legislature, testifying before committees and advocating for increased school spending. Dodge campaigned for Question 2, the 2016 referendum to add a surtax on incomes above $200,000 to boost state education spending to 55 percent.

"Adequately investing in our students furthers our goals of a well-educated citizenry and well-prepared employees," Dodge told a legislative committee in early 2017.

The referendum passed, and legislators boosted school funding by more than $160 million over two years. But they did not impose the surcharge and didn't fund the full amount requested in the referendum. For Dodge, and other career educators, it was frustrating.

"Our phone calls to legislators aren't being taken seriously. Testimony before legislative committees isn't making a difference. What are we going to do?” Dodge says. “I realized that I, maybe, needed to step up, and try to help those changes to be made and voices to be heard.”

"Many of these teachers are beginning to say, 'Enough is enough. We need more investment. We can't stand idly by anymore,'" says Michael Hansen, a senior fellow at the nonprofit Brookings Institute.

Hansen says that teachers are taking action nationwide. He attributes much of the motivation to school funding, which he says plummeted in many states following the recession. But he says this year's strikes in Oklahoma and West Virginia were a signal that educators are trying to reverse those trends.

"That motivated many teachers to say, 'Hey, look, we just need more people in the halls of power who are advocating for our children," he says. "And we are those people."

In Maine, however, school budgets aren’t the only issue. Many teachers here are pushing back against state and federal mandates.

"So it seems that it happens over and over again," says Jennie Butler, a former math teacher and state House candidate from Windham.

Butler says that in her 30 years of teaching, she was bombarded with mandates — local assessments, new teacher evaluations and most recently, proficiency-based diplomas.

"My last 10 to 15 years were really working at all of these other things that were not just for my students and my classroom," Butler says. "But all these other things we had to do because of the mandates. Whether it was testing, or learning results or proficiency-based prep."

For Henry Ingwersen, a recently retired teacher from Arundel who is running for a House seat, there are even more basic social and economic concerns that are affecting education in Maine. Among them — food insecurity and lack of health care.

"If there's issues of economy and poverty, it affects learning," he says. "So in order to bring our students to the place where they can actually learn, those are things that also need to be addressed."

According to a recent survey from the Maine Education Association, more than 85 percent of teachers say the profession has become less appealing over the past 10 years. Some teachers may choose to leave the job, but a growing number are taking action.

Education reporting on Maine Public Radio is supported by a grant from the Nellie Mae Education Foundation.