A teacher for 20 years and the mother of a child with autism, DeAnna Osborne has long advocated for policies to help students with disabilities. But until a Democratic Party leader urged her to pursue a legislative seat now up for grabs, she had never planned to run for political office.
“Initially my response was, ‘Why are you asking me? I’m just a teacher; I’m just a mom,’” recalled Osborne, who teaches English language learners at Smyrna Middle School and is now vying to represent Rutherford County in the Tennessee General Assembly.
“But having interacted with people at the state level, I’ve become very aware that legislators are just people too. We need more teachers and women representing the realities going on inside of schools,” said Osborne, who is running against Republican Charlie Baum, an economics professor at Middle Tennessee State University.
Osborne is one of at least two working teachers in Tennessee and more than 150 nationwide seeking state offices. She is campaigning for the seat being vacated by Republican Rep. Dawn White, herself a former teacher, now running for the state Senate.
Dickson County educator Larry Proffitt is also running to represent his district in Robertson County, north of Nashville. An eighth-grade history teacher and Democratic nominee, he is trying for a second time to defeat Republican Rep. Sabi “Doc” Kumar, a surgeon who has held the legislative seat since 2014.
Elsewhere in the state, Democrat Mariah Phillips resigned earlier this year from her Rutherford County teaching job to campaign full time for the congressional seat held by Republican U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais. And dozens of current and retired Tennessee teachers are running for local offices, including seats on school boards, city councils, and county commissions.
The wave of political activism doesn’t surprise Beth Brown, who this year began a two-year leave from her teaching job in Grundy County to preside over the Tennessee Education Association, the state’s largest teachers group.
“Teachers are the experts in their field,” said Brown. “Who better to shape public policy impacting public schools than our public school educators, whether it’s at the local, state, or federal levels?”
Seeing teachers run for office also stresses for students the importance of civic engagement, according to Brown, even as state law prohibits them from actively engaging in political activities during school hours.
“We have the power to show our students that you try to be part of the solution when you see there’s a problem,” she said.
That’s certainly the case for Proffitt, who already uses his snow days and school breaks to attend legislative sessions at the state Capitol in Nashville. Last February after a young man shot and killed 17 people at a high school in Parkland, Florida, Proffitt testified before a legislative committee against a bill that would have armed some Tennessee educators with handguns. That proposal eventually stalled.
“I teach my students every day about our country and our government and, if I don’t live what I teach, then I’m a phony,” said Proffitt, 54, a former restaurant manager and second-career educator who asked lawmakers “not to turn us into a security force.”
State testing is among the biggest issues that both Osborne and Proffitt highlight in their campaigns. Chronic problems with administering TNReady, as well as the high-stakes environment created under the assessment program, are big trouble spots, they say, even with the uptick in national test scores under the state’s tougher new accountability systems.
“It’s been excruciating,” said Osborne of the myriad of technical disruptions to computerized testing.
She recalls watching last spring when lawmakers passed emergency legislation to diminish the significance of the most recent scores because of TNReady glitches. Osborne was in the teachers lounge at the time and streaming the debate online.
“All of us teachers were talking about the need to have somebody on the floor of the legislature who can speak to the need for more than short-term Band-Aids. And then I thought, why not me?” she said.
Proffitt is frustrated by top-down policies that are significantly changing school communities without more input from educators.
“There’s a lot of money poured into our broken standardized testing system and also a lot of money behind voucher bills,” he said of proposals to use taxpayer money to fund private school tuition. “I’ve watched recess and other things that help our kids be normal being taken away. It’s less and less about social development and more and more about test scores.”
While Osborne hasn’t developed a formal platform on public education, she believes she can bring ground-level insights to the dialogue based on her years in the classroom.
“I’ve had my nose to the grindstone for more than two decades. It’s time to speak up,” said Osborne, a mother of four children. “Regular people like teachers and parents need to have a voice.”
Election Day is on Nov. 6.