COPLEY TWP.: Instead of passing out bright yellow “good-work cones” and stuffed animals to her best-behaved first-graders, Becky Higgins will be fighting right-to-work legislation in Columbus and advocating for educators across Ohio in September as the newly elected president of the state’s largest teachers’ union.
“I love my job. I love teaching, so it’s kind of bittersweet leaving the classroom,” she said of moving away from the thousands of books and mounds of materials packed into the corners of Room 106 at Copley-Fairlawn’s Herberich Primary School.
Higgins, the president-elect of the Ohio Education Association, leaves behind 19 years in that same classroom to lead more than 121,000 educators, including teachers and support staff, in most of Ohio’s more than 600 school districts.
While Higgins leaves teaching, she’ll be at the center of “dynamic changes” in education as the state rolls out more rigorous content standards that demand additional teacher training.
That new curriculum also brings added accountability and logistical challenges at the same time many school administrators are cutting teachers due to reductions in state aid.
She also will take office shortly after the Ohio Legislature and Gov. John Kasich finish a new two-year budget that, from all indications, will provide no meaningful increases in school funding, let alone restore more than $1 billion in state aid that was cut two years ago.
When districts face budget shortfalls, contract negotiations can be “challenging,” Higgins said.
Amid those challenges, Higgins takes the lead at a time when teachers and public unions have become fodder for political battles.
“Up until five or six years ago, no one would be having the conversations they are having or saying the things about teachers or public education that they say now. It’s like we’re fair game. They can attack us,” Higgins, 58, said. “It’s just disheartening, because most of the teachers that I know, they are such dedicated educators and they spend so much time and money in their lives educating the children in their classroom. So, it’s very disheartening because we know how much we give.”
Strong union background
Higgins said she was raised with a strong union background. Her mother, Delphia Lowe, instilled a sense of equity.
“My mother was a social justice warrior before there was even that term. What I learned from her was to stand up for myself and stand up for whatever I believe in,” Higgins said. “There’s a reason why I grew up to be the way I am.”
That would be politically active, passionate, not afraid to take a stand and unwilling to back down when she does.
Much of her union upbringing comes from her father, William Lowe, a retired Springfield teacher and Cuyahoga Falls councilman for 26 years.
Higgins said she often would wonder as a child why her father spent so much time at school.
“I know now why,” she said of the long hours Lowe spent working after class. “He didn’t have the rights that I enjoy today ... Back then, [teachers] had to do a lot of things, because if [the administration] didn’t like you, you were gone.”
Higgins plans to travel the state over her three-year term, recruiting younger members in their 30s and 40s to listen to the stories of retired educators like her father, who gave her some pithy advice when she started teaching at Revere in 1994.
“Know your contract; know your course of study,” he told her.
That advice couldn’t be more poignant.
“The minute a teacher signs a contract, they’re political. You sign a contract and everything in your life is determined by what happens down in Columbus,” she said, hinting at state budgets and mandates. “We are not the ones deciding how much money comes into a district. We are here to teach, and that is what we do.”
It has been her message to friends, family, colleagues, aspiring educators and the community as she has moved up through the union ranks.
Well versed on issues
“She has a good handle on several issues,” Copley-Fairlawn Superintendent Brian Poe said. As president of the Copley Teachers Association “she had a very collaborative approach with administration. I wouldn’t expect that to change with her new position.”
Higgins later led the North Eastern Ohio Education Association — in 2011, during the debate over Senate Bill 5, the politically charged legislation that would have effectively eliminated collective bargaining for public unions.
That’s a fight she hopes her constituents will not soon forget. Union supporters galvanized against SB5, leading to its defeat.
Another battle looming
But she expects a second battle soon.
“Right-to-work is much worse than Senate Bill 5,” she said.
On May 1, Ohio Senate Republican leadership tabled right-to-work legislation, proposed by House Republicans Kristina Roegner of Hudson and Ron Maag of Lebanon.
The legislation, which would prohibit unions from requiring employees to join a union and pay dues, slumbers as Republicans focus their state budget efforts on jobs and the economy.
Higgins has a message for educators across Ohio should legislators revisit that measure.
“Stand up, be counted, be ready, take a stand,” she said. “We would fervently fight [right-to-work legislation] with every breath that I have in my body.”
Doug Livingston can be reached at 330-996-3792 or firstname.lastname@example.org.