By Brenda Ortega
MEA Voice Editor
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 elected 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.
In Michigan, at least 10 MEA members will compete in November’s general election for positions in the state Legislature. That’s not including educators seeking spots at the local and regional level on everything from school boards to city councils and county commissions.
Spurred by damaging policies that have created a teacher shortage, these candidates hope to use leadership skills they have developed to lift voices too long ignored in the legislative arena.
“If elected, I will be not just 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 being vacated by term-limited Patrick Colbeck (R-Canton).
Polehanki is one of two MEA members running for office in northwestern Wayne County. While she is running for an open seat in the state Senate, Plymouth resident Matt Koleszar—a teacher in neighboring Monroe County—is trying to unseat an incumbent House Republican.
“The repeated attacks on education over the last eight years have brought me to this point,” Koleszar said. “Our current representative doesn’t just favor putting guns in schools; he wants to champion the bill. School boards don’t want it, teachers don’t want it, administrators don’t want it, but most importantly—kids and parents don’t want it.
“At some point I realized, enough is enough.”
Since tossing their hats in the ring, all of the MEA member candidates have for months engaged in the grinding work of campaigning: fundraising, building a web presence, promoting platforms on social media, recruiting volunteers, knocking on thousands of doors, 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.”
Koleszar agreed the DeVos agenda is not popular with local voters. “Only by adequately funding public schools, creating a safe, gun-free zone, and eliminating the for-profit motive will the level of education in Michigan rise and allow us to take back the title of a top-10 education state.”
Koleszar ran unopposed in the August Democratic primary for the 20th District House seat occupied by Rep. Jeff Noble (R-Plymouth), a first-term politician who sponsored controversial legislation that passed last spring to give money from voter-approved regional millages to charters and virtual schools.
“The current representative is all for supposed school choice, but there’s a lot of pride in our public schools,” Koleszar said. “People get very concerned when you’re talking about taking public money out of your community and redirecting it toward companies that are nowhere around here.”
Both Koleszar, an AP government teacher in Airport Community Schools, and Polehanki, a high school English teacher named her district’s 2018 Teacher of the Year, are in highly competitive races that political analysts rate as likely to flip seats from Republican to Democratic control.
The two educators have sacrificed personally to make time for the demanding work of challenging better-funded opponents in traditionally Republican-leaning Senate and House districts. Polehanki switched to a part-time teaching schedule, and Koleszar will take a personal leave in the two weeks before the election.
Having a strong grassroots ground game—recruiting a network of volunteers to knock on doors and make voter phone calls—is key, they say.
“My 73-year-old dad drives up here over an hour twice a week to do six-hour door-knocking shifts,” Polehanki said. “He’s a retired government teacher, MEA member, and he always gets a great response at the door. He leaves the part about ‘I’m Dayna’s dad’ for the grand finale.”
“It’s all about getting out the vote,” Koleszar said.
That goes double for MEA-Retired member Kathy Wiejaczka, a retired special education nurse from the Traverse Bay Intermediate School District running for the 101st House district. The part-time Ferris State University instructor and co-owner of a family-run construction business is locked in a tight race with a longtime radio host in the nearly 50-50 swing district.
“The message I have for demoralized teachers and faculty in Michigan is that many of us are trying to change the level of disrespect and union busting currently occurring in the teaching profession,” she said. “I will fight for this change if I am elected.”
Her campaign motto, “People first for the 101st,” explains her reason for running: “I felt the votes from my legislator did not reflect the needs of the community but that he was in the pockets of the big corporations and top 1 percent wealthy donors,” she said.
The open seat representing a four-county region in the northwest part of the state was vacated by a Republican, but election watchers give Democrat Wiejaczka a good chance to claim it. Like other MEA member candidates, she’s talking about a number of issues that resonate in addition to education: affordable health care, labor rights, livable wages, environmental protection.
“The level of excitement and positivity is strong and vibrant for this campaign, because our message is one of love, hope, and service,” she said. “Voters connect and trust me since I am a nurse. They know I will not let them down.”
Another MEA member competing in a swing district is L’Anse Creuse Public Schools economics and history teacher Nate Shannon. The Sterling Heights city councilman is seeking the 25th District House seat being vacated by a term-limited Democrat in a 50-50 district.
The son of teachers, Shannon said he has been disappointed as both an educator and a parent in the Legislature’s “dismantling of our once proud education system in Michigan.”
“The recent study by the School Finance Research Collaborative found that the state of Michigan is under-funding school districts by thousands of dollars per pupil,” Shannon said. “We need to restructure parts of our tax system to provide the funds and resources necessary to help our students succeed in the 21st Century economy.”
Shannon ran unopposed in the Democratic primary to face an inexperienced and ultra-conservative Republican candidate in November’s general election. Shannon said he is committed to “common-sense” policy reforms.
“I could no longer sit back and watch the Legislature decimate our education system, ignore hazardous infrastructure problems, strip away local control, and allow corporations to disregard our environment,” he said. “I want to contribute to the issues that would have a positive impact on our state.”
Meanwhile, in the blue-leaning 48th House District, MEA-Retired member Sheryl Kennedy took a big step toward winning office by dominating her August Democratic primary, winning 73 percent of the vote against two opponents.
She faces a Republican challenger previously defeated in a run for Congress by Democratic U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee.
A Walled Lake principal who taught for 22 years, Kennedy says her run for state representative in Davison near Flint has connected her with women across Michigan who are running for office amid successful careers in law, social work, education, and nursing.
“I’m part of this wonderful cohort of women who together believe that, if we are elected in November, we are going to hit that Michigan House running and we’re going to get stuff done,” Kennedy said.
She wants to see resources redirected away from charter schools and high-stakes standardized testing and back to the classroom, among other priorities. “People feel invested in their public schools, and they recognize the changes that have occurred.
“They don’t like larger class sizes, they don’t like standardized testing, they don’t like that skilled trades have left public education. They support pre-K as part of public education. We’re in a place now that people are saying, ‘Let’s get our schools where we want them to be.’”
The trends in Michigan mirror what’s happening nationally. Record numbers of women are running up and down the ballot in states across the U.S., and an unprecedented number of educators are seeking elected offices at the state and federal level.
In one high-profile case during the primary season, former National Teacher of the Year Jahana Hayes upset the Democratic frontrunner in blue-state Connecticut to likely become the first black woman to win a congressional seat in that state.
A similar scenario played out on a smaller scale in Michigan. Lori Stone, a fourth-grade teacher from Fitzgerald Public Schools in Warren, upset incumbent Rep. Patrick Green in the August Democratic primary for the blue-leaning 28th House District—despite being outspent 12-1.
It was her second bid for the same seat. She lost to Green in the primary in 2016.
Stone said she learned a lot about organizing in her previous run and was better prepared to build a grassroots campaign this time. In addition, being an educator involved in the union for 14 years helped her develop talents in “organization, management, resourcefulness and leadership.”
She’s seeking office to bring an educator’s voice to Lansing, she said. “The budget, curriculum, evaluations, and unions are all policy areas essential to the success of Michigan’s public schools, but education policy is being passed by our state Legislature with little consideration for education professionals, best practices, or funding necessary to implement.”
In Clinton County, Dawn Levey is hoping to pull off an upset in November’s general election.
The Ovid-Elsie Alternative High School teacher and director faces a well-funded opponent from the state’s attorney general’s office in a race for the 93rd District House seat being vacated by the term-limited current Speaker of the House, Tom Leonard (R-DeWitt).
The rural region north of Lansing is traditionally conservative, but growing suburban areas in DeWitt and Bath may create a more competitive environment, according to the Capitol news service, MIRS. As such, MIRS political analysts concluded, “The 93rd shouldn’t be written off.”
Levey wants to give voice to a wider constituency, she says. “As a teacher I am on the front line to see the unintended consequences of the current legislators’ actions, those individuals who have not been in a classroom for years developing policy that lacks educator input and sound research-based outcomes.”
She is a triple threat: educator and MEA board member, 30-year Emergency Medical Technician, and two-term Michigan United Conservation Clubs president. She is a member or leader in numerous outdoor and conservation organizations, including Michigan Bow Hunters.
“It is time for a change. A person I respect recently stated, ‘You do not win by destroying what you hate. You win by fighting for what you love.’”
Kalamazoo teacher Jennifer Aniano is in a similar position, trying to flip a Republican seat in a red district. Her opponent is a hardline conservative and Donald J. Trump for President congressional district chairman who upset incumbent Rep. David Maturen, (R-Vicksburg) in the Republican primary.
Aniano said she stepped up to run because she believes sweeping change is coming and educators need to have a voice in hopeful new policy directions. “We cannot complain if we are not willing to take up the charge,” she said. “I am willing.”
After eight years of teaching in Grand Rapids and Kalamazoo, Aniano said her priorities include overturning the so-called Right to Work law and focusing on equity: “Our schools must be better funded. Our most vulnerable students deserve the same education as our wealthiest, and the children of Flint deserve vindication.”
Two other MEA members will face Republican incumbents in heavily conservative districts.
Adrian teacher Amber Pedersen chose to seek Lenawee County’s 57th District House seat, because otherwise no one who valued education would appear on the ballot, she said. Both she and incumbent Bronna Kahle (R-Adrian) ran unopposed in the primary.
“Like many of my coworkers, when I started teaching Michigan schools were some of the best in the country, and I have experienced the direct relationship between Lansing’s poor education policies and our schools’ decline,” Pedersen said.
In Rockford, recently retired Rockford High School social studies teacher Craig Beach is challenging incumbent Peter MacGregor (R-Rockford) for the 28th District Senate seat representing northern Kent County and the cities of Wyoming, Walker, and Grandville.
Beach said his wife, parents, and sister either are or were educators, but he has discouraged his own children from pursuing the profession, because “years of Republican policies have tarnished education as a career.”
The former Otisco Township trustee boasts a campaign platform on the economy, education, and environment that prioritizes “people over profits.”
“It is only through the active participation of citizens that government is by the people and for the people,” he said.
All of the candidates will be making a final push in the last weeks leading up to the Nov. 6 General Election.