By Maggie Mixer and Abeer Sikder
Across the country, from Kentucky to Wisconsin to New Mexico, educators have been elected to the highest executive offices in their states. While their careers as teachers, coaches and administrators have taken different paths, they have all been driven by a commitment to serving their communities and future generations. Education, for them, is the cornerstone and catalyst of their public service.
Serving the State by Serving Youth
Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers started as a teacher before climbing the educational administration ladder, advancing positions that ranged from principal to state superintendent. After his three terms at the helm of the Department of Public Instruction, which manages all of Wisconsin’s public education systems, he was elected as governor on a platform that put education front and center.
Throughout Evers’ career in education administration and elected office, he has been driven by his goal to ensure that the education system “had the resources they needed” to set Wisconsin’s students on the path to success. His favorite adage — “what’s best for our kids is best for our state” — is a slogan he joked his longtime supporters are tired of hearing, yet he said it still rings true and has served as a guide stone during his career.
“Public education is still at the core of my being and it continues to be. I get in front of schools as much as possible,” Evers said. “What I learn on a daily basis is the most important thing is to get out and talk to people, ask them what they need, what they’re irritated about, how we can help.”
Regardless of who he is talking to around Wisconsin, Evers always asks them about the kids in their life and what the state can do to improve the education system. Despite all possible differences in policy discussions, he still sees the unifying power of education. This approach has served Evers well as he coordinates with his state agencies, the state Legislature, community organizations and constituent groups across the state to create a better future for Wisconsin.
“Whether you’re in front of a classroom of kids that come from any kind of background you can imagine, to working with parents and school boards, the ability to bring people together and accomplish things is critically important,” Evers said.
This year, concerned about the crises he was “seeing in every part of the state,” Evers declared 2023 the “Year of Mental Health in Wisconsin” and directed his administration’s resources towards strengthening the mental health support systems available throughout the state. Through negotiations with the Wisconsin Legislature, he secured $30 million in the most recent budget for school mental health programs.
The Accidental Advocate
Kentucky Lt. Gov. Jacqueline Coleman has also prioritized student mental health during her term. An educator for more than a decade, she first served as a teacher before later becoming an assistant principal. During that time, according to Coleman, she became an “accidental advocate,” choosing to teach social studies and civics because “there were so many young people that didn’t understand how government should work and their role in ensuring that it does work.”
Although Coleman loved her time as an educator, “the lack of resources, the lack of funding, the attacks on teachers … were all things that really drew [her] to more of the advocacy arena.”
“With every challenge that we face in Kentucky, the solution — or at least part of the solution — is education. I see [every challenge] through the eyes of the kids in our classrooms and the families that I got to work with every single day as a teacher.”— Kentucky Lt. Gov. Jacqueline Coleman
In 2021, Coleman launched the Team Kentucky Student Mental Health Initiative. She said schools are “microcosms” of the communities that make up Kentucky, which is why it is so crucial to include the perspectives of teachers and students in the legislative process.
As part of the initiative, Coleman’s office held 10 regional summits where students facilitated conversations with their peers and used that information to create policy recommendations. These recommendations became the “North Star” of the administration’s efforts after they were presented to the Legislature, state agencies and community partners. Coleman credited the initiative with helping her secure $40 million in federal funding to support Kentucky’s mental health care workforce and strengthen mental health services in schools.
An educator and “lifelong learner,” Coleman’s recent work pushed her to also extend her own education on student mental health. She is currently pursuing her doctorate in educational leadership from the University of Kentucky and plans to focus her dissertation on the topic.
Special Education and Service
Educators’ focus on building a better future has been crucial for pushing policy forward, especially in the face of serious setbacks. After teaching special education for 10 years, New Mexico Lt. Gov. Howie Morales served in the state Senate for 11 years before taking office as lieutenant governor.
In the Senate, Morales proposed the creation of an Early Childhood Education and Care Department to organize New Mexico’s support structures for early childhood development. The bill failed to pass, but he continued working and was able to oversee the department’s creation during the beginning of his term as lieutenant governor.
Morales’ effort was part of his long-term goal to improve not only K-12 and higher education opportunities, but also New Mexico’s programs and services around early childhood, extracurricular and adult education, so that all New Mexicans can receive a quality education.
“Being a special educator, I think it has really shown that it’s about the personalization of the educational process. I believe that we’ve focused all too often across the country on student proficiency or student achievement when, in reality, we should be focusing on student engagement.”— New Mexico Lt. Gov. Howie Morales
Through Morales’ work, “a historic $20 million appropriation” was directed toward after-school programs that engage students “beyond the walls of a classroom.” Known as the General Appropriate Act of 2023, New Mexico HB 2 was signed into law in April.
Morales’ goal for more personalized education comes from both personal and professional experiences as the first member of his family to attend college and graduate school. From a young age, as a member of student council, he was committed to his “responsibility” to ensure that the students after him had access to the educational path that transformed his life. His experiences and family also instilled in him the idea that “leadership is about service … it’s not about a position, it’s about action.”
“I left the classroom to make a difference in policy,” Morales said. “Above all, what I love more than anything is to interact with people … to be there shaking hands, to be accessible, be respectful and always have the opportunity to create those relationships.”