Meet the Indiana Teacher Running to Unseat the State's House Education Chair
In the week before Election Day, Education Week will feature several stories of teachers who are running for their state legislatures.
By Madeline Will
Kevin Leineweber has been an educator for 25 years. Now, he's trying to unseat the state legislator who spearheads Indiana's education policymaking.
Leineweber, 49, had never thought about running for political office, but a couple of years ago, he and his wife decided to try to find ways to make a positive impact in the world. First, they fostered and then adopted two teenagers, who are now 19 and 17. Leineweber and his wife have three other adult children, ages 25, 25, and 23.
Then, Leineweber decided that he could bring positive change to the Indiana state legislature by running for office. His state representative, Republican Bob Behning, has been the state House education chairman for eight years. Behning, who has served in the legislature for almost three decades, used to own a florist shop and has ties to education as well—he is the director of external affairs for the teacher-preparation program at the private Marian University.
Leineweber, who is a high school physics and Earth and Space Science teacher in Clayton, Ind., said it was a "no brainer" to challenge him using a pro-education platform.
"I'm not running as a Democrat to replace a Republican," he said, adding that he doesn't want this to be a partisan race. "Rather, I'm running because I'm not happy with the state of education."
Leineweber is part of an unprecedented wave of teachers running for office across the country. Education Week has counted about 160 current classroom teachers who have filed to run for their state legislatures, and found that about 100 have made it past the primary elections. (Leineweber was unopposed in his primary.)
Spurring on this burst of teacher activism has been the widescale teacher protests and walkouts that happened this spring in a half-dozen states. Those walkouts, which were mainly driven by years of stagnant wages and cuts to school funding, sparked a national conversation about teacher pay.
Indiana didn't experience any teacher unrest this year, but Leineweber said the state is facing similar issues—not enough resources for schools or teacher salaries. His main complaint against Behning is his stance on vouchers.
Behning—who Chalkbeat called "one of the most high-profile choice-based education reform advocates in the Indiana General Assembly"—authored the 2011 bill that established the state's voucher program, which has been nationally recognized. School voucher programs provides taxpayer dollars to families to help pay for private schools, most of them religious.
Leineweber said diverting taxpayer dollars away from public schools has "created in Indiana an absolute lack of equality and services for those students who are already at a deficit of resources."
However, Behning has said that the parents of children in private schools "are taxpayers just like the parents in a traditional public school." Indiana spends less on a voucher student than it would if that student were in a public school, Behning told NPR.
Still, Leineweber said, he thinks the state could fund teacher salary increases by "allocating funds we already have in education and pulling them out of the voucher system and putting them back in the school district." The 2016-17 average public school teacher salary in Indiana was $54,304—below the national average salary of $59,660, according to the National Education Association.
Ultimately, Leineweber said his vast experience in education would be useful for state policymaking. He currently teaches at a traditional public school in the suburbs, but he has previously taught in a private school, a public charter school, and an urban state takeover school. He also has served as an administrator for nine years.
His experience in those different types of schools has reinforced to him "the inequality of what we have to offer our students," Leineweber said. His current school was recently recognized by the U.S. Department of Education as a high-performing school, while the urban school where he used to work had few resources. Students there learned science from online courses and substitute teachers, because the school couldn't attract and keep high-quality science teachers.
That personal background in schools would help him as a state legislator, Leineweber said.
"In Indiana, there's so much legislation that's created that's directly related to schools, and I'm able to bring a voice to school districts, administrators, teachers, and students back into the legislature, and say, 'OK, I understand this is the idea behind the law, let's look at what the larger impact would be,'" he said. "I don't have the answer to everything, but I have a lot of contacts."
Leineweber has received endorsements from both of the state's teachers' unions. There are six other current classroom teachers in Indiana who are running for state legislative seats, according to Education Week's tracker. All are Democrats. (Of all the teachers who will be on the ballot next week, 71 percent are Democrats.)
Leineweber said he hopes these campaigns will lead to more teacher voice in the legislature.
"We think there are a few people in tune [with education in the state legislature]," he said. "Overall, the chair of the [education] committee is not, and the overall state legislature is not. The few that are in tune are overshadowed."
Image courtesy of Kevin Leineweber
Before the election, catch up on Education Week's coverage of teachers running for office:
- Teachers Running for Office Face Tough Choice: Go Negative or Not?
- To Show That Elections Matter, This Teacher Is Running for Office
- Teachers Aren't Just Running for Office—They're Winning
- With the Successful Strikes Behind Them, Teachers Are Now Running for Office
- Jahana Hayes, 2016 National Teacher of Year, Among Educators Who Won Primaries
- Math Teacher Unseats Ky. House Leader Who Spearheaded Pension Changes