Election Night Brings Highs and Lows for Oklahoma Teachers

John Waldron, a teacher running for House District 77, gives his victory speech at the Democratic watch party held at the Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame on Nov. 6, in Tulsa, Okla.
John Waldron, a teacher running for House District 77, gives his victory speech at the Democratic watch party held at the Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame on Nov. 6, in Tulsa, Okla.
—Brandi Simons for Education Week
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Tulsa, Okla.

There were tears of joy and tears of sorrow here at the Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame tonight, as the “teacher caucus” and its supporters watched the election results roll in.

While teachers across the country ran for their state legislatures to champion public education, Tulsa was somewhat of an epicenter for the movement, with about a dozen area educators on the ballot. Several were here at the Tulsa County Democratic Party’s watch party.

At least two educators from the group, which deemed itself the “caucus,” claimed big victories. Democrats Melissa Provenzano, an assistant principal at Bixby High School, and John Waldron, a social studies teacher at Booker T. Washington High School, both won their races for state House, according to the county Democratic party.

“I think [Republicans] made a mistake when they came after teachers and education,” Waldron told Education Week after his victory.

Melissa Provenzano, an assistant principal in Oklahoma, celebrates her House District 79 win during the Democratic watch party held at the Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame on Nov. 6 in Tulsa, Okla.
Melissa Provenzano, an assistant principal in Oklahoma, celebrates her House District 79 win during the Democratic watch party held at the Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame on Nov. 6 in Tulsa, Okla.
—Brandi Simons for Education Week

Still, the victory for teachers wasn’t clear-cut. Several more teachers here lost their races. Republican Kevin Stitt claimed the gubernatorial election over Democrat Drew Edmondson, who made public education a centerpiece of his campaign and who teachers had rallied around.

“In the races where the issue of public education was front and center, we’re doing well, but we’re not overcoming party politics on the overall state level,” said Brendan Jarvis, a member of the Oklahoma Education Association board of directors and a 7th grade geography teacher in the Tulsa area. “But there is definitely progress being made in this election. We are much better off than we were after the election two years ago. We have come a long way.”

Teachers running in this state point to the nine-day walkout that took place in April as a critical factor that energized voters and brought education to the forefront of the election. Thousands of teachers had walked out of their classrooms, protesting a decade of stagnant pay and years of cuts to education dollars. Teachers ended the walkout with an average $6,100 pay raise and a small bump to school funding, but it was a far cry from their original goals.

Angela Graham, right, a teacher running for State House District 66 in Oklahoma gets a hug from her campaign photographer, Jamie Glisson, during the Democratic watch party held at the Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame on Nov. 6.
Angela Graham, right, a teacher running for State House District 66 in Oklahoma gets a hug from her campaign photographer, Jamie Glisson, during the Democratic watch party held at the Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame on Nov. 6.
—Brandi Simons for Education Week

In Oklahoma alone this election season, at least 66 current teachers filed to run for office, with many pointing to the walkout as the motivating factor. More than half were knocked out during the primaries, leaving at least 29 teachers on the ballot. It’s unclear how many of those teachers won their state legislative races Tuesday.

Nationally, nearly 180 current K-12 classroom teachers had filed to run for state legislature this election, according to an Education Week analysis. More than 100 had advanced past the primary elections.

Angela Graham, a pre-K teacher who lost to an incumbent Tuesday night, said the campaign ultimately came down to the fact that her opponent had more money than she did. Graham ran as a Democrat, but during the watch party she sat with several of her teacher friends, who are Republicans. The fight for public education, Graham said, has transcended party lines.

And she doesn’t view Tuesday as a defeat, she said.

“I personally lost an endeavor that I chose to do, but the people of Oklahoma won because they have more advocates [in the legislature],” she said, pointing to Waldron’s and Provenzano’s victories, along with those of other education-friendly candidates.

Observers gather around televisions to watch election results come in during the Democratic watch party at the Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame on Nov. 6.
Observers gather around televisions to watch election results come in during the Democratic watch party at the Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame on Nov. 6.
—Brandi Simons for Education Week

Meanwhile, Craig Hoxie, a science teacher at Booker T. Washington High School who lost his race for state House, said he was already planning to run again in 2020. In Oklahoma, he said, change is going to happen through “incremental gains.”

As the night drew to a close, educators here were still waiting to see the results for other legislative seats across the state. They were optimistic about voters defeating a controversial ballot measure, which would have amended the Oklahoma state constitution by removing restrictions on how school districts can use some property tax dollars. Supporters had said this amendment would give more flexibility to school districts, but opponents—including the state teachers’ union, the OEA—worried that the measure would have widened the gap between poor and rich districts and shifted the financial responsibility of raising teacher pay to the districts rather than the legislature.

They were also wary of Gov.-elect Stitt, who made raising teacher pay part of his campaign but said he opposed the teacher walkout and that he wouldn’t have signed the subsequent revenue package to raise teacher salaries through a tax increase.

“The battle continues,” Waldron said. “Governor-elect Stitt says he’s for education, so what does he mean? We’ll be asking him these questions, we’ll try to find out what he means, and if he tries to shortchange the students of Oklahoma, … we’re going to hold him accountable.”

After all, throughout election night, students were never far from the candidates’ minds. Several former and current students of the candidates were here at the watch party. As Hoxie checked his phone to look at the election results, he was also seeing student assignments roll in.

Fresh off his victory Tuesday, Waldron said he knew what he would say to his students when he next sees them: “I’m going to tell them I know I’ve been a distracted teacher for a long time, and I wouldn’t have done it if I didn’t think it was important,” he said. “I felt like we made that sacrifice together, but we made it for a larger purpose.”

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