HOUSTON — Aaron Phillips is a fifth grade teacher in the Amarillo Independent School District. Before the 2018 election, he organized for local Republicans like state Sen. Kel Seliger and state Rep. Four Price, whom he considered "friendly" to public education.
But on Friday afternoon, he was at the George R. Brown Convention Center in downtown Houston alongside thousands of union-affiliated teachers listening to 10 Democrats running for president explain their views on standardized tests, teacher pay and school safety. This summer brought an end to a state legislative session focused almost entirely on public education, and Texas educators are continuing the political pressure at the national level in an already heated 2020 cycle.
Despite his support for Republicans in the Texas Legislature, Phillips said he finds himself drawn to U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, convinced in part by his plan to achieve universal health care. Phillips has the free high-deductible health insurance plan his school district offers, and he knows he could be one accident away from paying thousands of dollars in medical bills.
"I would hate to fall further into debt because I had an accident," he said. "I don't go for yearly check-ups. I don't do any preventative services because I can't afford it."
Several thousand red-shirted educators rows deep in the high-ceilinged Houston convention center showed up for the National Education Association's first 2020 presidential forum, whooping loudly at the high notes of the candidates' speeches and clapping together long balloons emblazoned with the national union's 2020 election refrain, "Strong Public Schools."
The Democratic presidential hopefuls had 10 minutes to answer questions submitted by educators across the country. Both Texas candidates — Beto O'Rourke and Julián Castro — made sure to greet the Texas educators in the room in English and Spanish and referenced their experiences with the state's education system.
"We grew up in the San Antonio ISD and Edgewood ISD school districts of San Antonio that were two of the poorest school districts in the state," said Castro, one of the Democratic candidates with an extensive education plan. "And so I know from firsthand experience the impact of growing up in segregated school districts."
O'Rourke, who has advocated for student loan forgiveness for all public school teachers, walked onto the stage to a "Beto" chant, popularized during his unsuccessful run for U.S. senator in 2018.
The federal government traditionally has limited control over K-12 schools, compared with state and local governments, since it funds less than 10% of the cost of public education. Past administrations, including President Barack Obama’s, have used money both to incentivize states to change education policy and to penalize them for not meeting federally set standards.
Over the last year and a half, teachers across the country, organized by unions, have walked out of their classrooms, frustrated about difficult working conditions and lackluster salaries.
The Democrats onstage Friday referenced the success of union organizing in improving school conditions and promised to expand that power. O'Rourke, who has three children in El Paso public schools, said he had seen the "devastation" in communities and states where unions are not allowed to organize.
But expanding union power would be challenging for a state like Texas, which has largely outlawed collective bargaining and doesn't require school employees to pay union dues. Teachers who strike in Texas could lose their teaching certificates and benefits.
"When we organize, we have to take the power to the ballot box," said Phillips, who leads the Amarillo district's local union.
David Ring refuses to disclose his political affiliation to the high school seniors who take his civics and government class, taking pride in the fact that they're often unable to guess at the end of the semester.
He drove more than eight hours from Lubbock earlier this week to hear what the candidates wanted to do for education, weeks after the end of a legislative session in which he and other Texas teachers watched the state's Republican leaders rush to put billions into public schools to appease education-friendly voters.
Yet even with that expected bump in pay, teachers like Ring, who has a second job as an adjunct professor and pays thousands in student loans each month, remain hopeful Texas voters will press their elected officials to keep the pendulum swinging in the same direction next year.
"I'm not saying a raise would make me happier, but I'm not saying it would make me less happy," he said.
Teacher pay increases emerged as a key issue for the Texas legislative session that gaveled out in May and quickly became a top talking point for Democratic presidential candidates. U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris, D-California, was the first presidential candidate this cycle to propose giving teachers a significant raise by putting more than $300 billion towards an average $13,500 salary increase.
"This is partly about the money, but again, it's about respect. It's about recognizing every day the worth of what our teachers do," said U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Massachusetts, a former special education teacher, in response to a question Friday about pay.
Michelle Cardenas, a bilingual pre-K teacher at Del Valle ISD, helped put pressure on administrators in her district to increase salaries for the upcoming school year, on the heels of state officials allocating money for that in a law that goes into effect in September. She said her local union has a good relationship with the school board, one way of getting around the prohibition on collective bargaining.
Cardenas is clear on why the upcoming election is important to her beyond the candidates' education plans. Recently, in one of her pre-K classes, a photo of President Donald Trump appeared on the screen and a student started crying, saying she was worried about her family being sent back to Mexico. The Trump administration's controversial crackdown on immigration has separated thousands of migrant families.
"I'm cautious of who I'm going to choose," she said. "It may not be an easy election."