GUY RAZ, host: In Ohio, voters have been watching TV ads telling them which way to vote on Issue 2. That's a measure on the ballot that could overturn a law passed last spring that limits the collective bargaining rights of public employee unions. Organized labor, including the teacher's unions, are spending heavily to defeat that measure. But at the same time, there are other educators who back the law and are also campaigning.
Ida Lieszkovszky of StateImpact Ohio reports.
IDA LIESZKOVSZKY: By now, Ohioans have seen this ad many times. There's a young blonde teacher surrounded by doting students in her classroom.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV AD)
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Thousands of teachers across Ohio oppose Issue 2 because we care about the kids we teach. Issue 2 will restrict teachers' rights to bargain collectively for smaller class sizes, up-to-date textbooks, even negotiating on school safety issues. And Issue 2 can mean even more standardized testing and less time on classroom learning.
LIESZKOVSZKY: Moments later, Ohioans might catch this ad with a robust young man in a baby blue button-down shirt speaking in an empty classroom, and scenes of several other teachers hard at work.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV AD)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Issue 2 will improve education. Good teachers will finally be rewarded for the job they do and the results that they achieve in the classroom. Not getting raises just for showing up.
LIESZKOVSZKY: Then there are the pamphlets that have been filling mailboxes. One reads: Because our children deserve it. Another says: Great teachers can make a world of difference. And yet a third warns: They fired some of Ohio's best teachers.
These are all urging voters to approve Issue 2. But right after reading that pamphlet, your phone might ring.
(SOUNDBITE OF PHONE RINGING)
LIESZKOVSZKY: And you might hear this.
TRACY RADICH: Hi. My name is Tracy and I'm calling to ask you to vote no on Issue 2 this November to repeal Senate Bill 5. Are you familiar with Issue 2?
LIESZKOVSZKY: Cleveland teacher Tracy Radich has been spending her spare time cold calling and canvassing voters, urging them to vote against the measure. She says it's an assault on teachers unions. Teachers, it turns out, are playing a big part of both sides approach to the issue. The We Are Ohio group, looking to overturn Senate Bill 5, has been using an emotional approach. That hasn't been hard to do, says Robert Higgs with Politifact Ohio.
ROBERT HIGGS: Particularly with education, you can tug on those heartstrings because they'll present it as this is going to affect your children.
LIESZKOVSZKY: Meanwhile, the Building a Better Ohio group that supports Issue 2 has been framing the law as a way to purge Ohio's classrooms of teachers who don't work hard but cash in on lavish benefits packages.
JOHN GREEN: You know, I think there is a hierarchy in the way people view public employees.
LIESZKOVSZKY: That's University of Akron political science professor John Green. He says police and firefighters and the army are at the top of the public employee pyramid. The bulk of the ads have focused on these safety forces because they're admired for their heroism and providing an essential public service.
GREEN: You know, as we move down the hierarchy, teachers are probably in the middle. They're seen as very positive in some respects, but there's a sense that maybe public education has its problems.
LIESZKOVSZKY: Green says that skepticism is one of the reasons the pro-Issue 2 forces can effectively use educators on their own side as well. But, he says, for the most part, teachers have been essential to the opposition's efforts behind the scenes.
GREEN: Teachers unions have provided a lot of money, a lot of organizing effort to put the campaign together. And the individual teachers have been very, very active first in collecting signatures, then going door to door, then campaigning with their friends in their neighborhoods.
LIESZKOVSZKY: School employees make up the bulk of public unions in Ohio. Many have added extra fees onto membership dues to contribute to the No On Issue 2 campaign. And remember that phone call? The Cleveland Teachers Union says their phone bank has made about half of all calls in the state on behalf of the opposition. And Professor John Green says that has been significant.
GREEN: There wouldn't be as an effective a campaign against Issue 2 if it weren't for the teachers unions and the involvement of the individual teachers in the campaign.
LIESZKOVSZKY: Green says he wouldn't be surprised if the total cost of campaigns about Issue 2 exceeded $30 million - pretty steep for a ballot issue in an off-year election for Ohio. These efforts may be paying off. The latest polls show a sizeable majority of Ohioans plan to vote no.
For NPR News, I'm Ida Lieszkovszky in Cleveland. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.