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Fed-Up Teachers Are Running for Office in Oklahoma. Can They Win?

By Daarel Burnette II — June 25, 2018 | Corrected: June 28, 2018 7 min read
House candidate and Oklahoma teacher Christopher Brobst walks through a neighborhood outside Tulsa as he canvasses for votes.

Corrected: An earlier version of this article misidentified Oklahoma teacher Angela Statum’s political affiliation. She is a Democrat.

Tulsa, Okla.

Oklahoma politics can be tribal, combative, and expensive—and a cadre of hardheaded teachers here are seeing that firsthand as part of a national wave of educators looking to make their mark in the 2018 election season.

In state legislative District 68, which wraps around the southwestern edge of Tulsa, four teachers—two Democrats and two Republicans—are on the ballot in Tuesday’s primary, among the nine candidates vying for a single seat in the state House of Representatives.

And while they’re encouraged by the enthusiasm generated by teacher activism nationwide, Oklahoma teachers have been down this road before, suffering a frustrating series of defeats in 2016, when more than 40 teachers ran for the legislature. That’s left this year’s crop clear-eyed about the hurdles they face.

“We don’t have any illusions about what it takes this time around,” said Michael Ross, a Sand Springs, Okla., high school journalism and social studies teacher who is one of the two District 68 Democrats competing in Tuesday’s primary. “Most teachers are not confrontational, and we have a strong streak here where we’ve just kept quiet in order to keep the peace. Our state government has taken advantage of that for far too long. Are we going to keep waiting for a hero to come along, or are we going to do something about it?”

School of Hard Knocks

In all, some 60 teachers statewide are seeking spots in the Oklahoma’s legislature this year. Many can readily recite the fatal missteps of their predecessors—the ones some call the “doomed teachers caucus of the 2016 election.” Among the mistakes: They didn’t collaborate, raise enough money, or articulate well enough their vision to the state’s most skeptical voters.

Things are different this time, several teacher candidates said as they knocked on doors in the run-up to the primary.

For one thing, they’re hoping to connect directly with voters’ concerns about the state of Oklahoma’s school system. Parents, they’ve heard over and over again, are furious about budget cuts, and it’s become increasingly clear that the state’s current politicians, just about all of whom are up for election, aren’t capable of fixing the state’s budget crisis.

On the more practical side, the state’s teachers’ union, on a nonpartisan basis, has hosted candidate forums across the state, given each member running $250 in campaign funds, and tracked members’ campaigns on social media. Some local photographers have volunteered to take free head shots of teacher candidates.

Teachers in online forums have shared mapping tools, campaign messages, voter spreadsheets, and tips that may be locally specific. (Example: In some areas, few voters are likely to answer their doors on Wednesday night—it’s Bible study night.)

Christopher Brobst, left, an Oklahoma teacher who is running for a seat in the state House of Representatives, talks with Kent Gooch and Gooch's son Stapleton and daughter Larken in a neighborhood outside Tulsa, Okla.

Still, any teachers who make it through Tuesday’s primary will have an uphill battle facing them in a potential runoff and in November: Oklahoma teachers are paid on average $42,000, and their network of family and friends, many teachers point out, are not necessarily flush with cash.

Some of their opponents have brought in tens of thousands of campaign dollars from the state’s strong oil industry, and many incumbents have framed this year’s teachers caucus as greedy, never satisfied, and bent on raising Oklahomans’ taxes.

That all can make for a heavy lift, as John Waldron, a social studies teacher at Booker T. Washington High School in Tulsa, knows well. A Democrat running for House District 77, he ran for a state Senate seat two years ago and lost.

“It broke my back and my heart,” said Waldron. “We have to start early, this time and put in the work.”

Nationwide Wave

Across the nation, teachers have become increasingly fed up with their state’s union’s inability to successfully lobby statehouse politicians for better pay and improved working conditions.

According to some estimates, more than 130 teachers are running for office this year in Arizona, Kentucky, Oklahoma, and West Virginia, states where teachers this spring held days-long strikes over their pay. In an early upset, Travis Brenda, a high school math teacher in Rockcastle County, Ky., narrowly defeated Republican House majority floor leader Jonathan Shell in the May primaries.

The stakes in this year’s race are especially high for teachers in Oklahoma: Leaders of a growing anti-tax movement have set out to rescind the new corporate taxes that will pay for teachers’ raises, and hundreds of teachers have begun to leave for surrounding states where they can make more money.

The latest wave of momentum in Oklahoma can be traced to the statewide teacher walkout over pay issues earlier this year. At one point during that showdown, state legislators and Republican Gov. Mary Fallin said that an average $6,000 raise would be all the teachers would get and that they’d best head back to work. Some of the state’s angriest teachers, still not satisfied, walked together into the state capitol building and paid the $500 fee to run for office.

“It just put me over the edge being down there and seeing things aren’t going to change anytime soon for us,” said Ross.

In Ross’ district, House District 68—a sliver of neighborhoods west of downtown Tulsa that juts south into the city’s wealthy suburbs—a kindergarten teacher, a 4th grade teacher, a middle school math teacher, and a high school history teacher all filed to replace Glen Mulready, a longtime Republican businessman now running for the state insurance commissioner.

The district, like the rest of the state, is particularly conservative with just a quarter of its residents registered as Democrats.

Budget at Center Stage

So many teachers running for one seat was not coordinated, the candidates said. But how to fix the state’s budget crisis has naturally taken center stage in this race.

The budget cuts to the dozens of schools serving this area have been widespread. Class sizes have swollen, teachers have been laid off, field trips have been cancelled and extra curricular programs shuttered, said several parents.

The teachers running for office here have framed themselves to voters as the candidates who know best the real-world impact a decade of budget cuts can have on schools. They say they will take to Oklahoma City a sense of urgency to fix the state’s budget crisis along with a suite of solutions: close tax loopholes, raise the income tax by a quarter of a percent from the current 5 percent, and audit the state’s many departments to get rid of waste.

“I’m conservative, but I want to be fiscally responsible,” said Christopher Brobst, a Republican candidate who teaches 6th grade math. “I think my party got too cut happy.”

Voters were generally enthusiastic to open their doors on a recent humid afternoon and see one of their kids’ teachers asking for their vote.

And many were sympathetic to the cause.

“I think it’s great that someone in the know is running,” said Kent Gooch, a father of two children that attend an elementary school in Jenks, Okla. “Maybe a real-world expert can turn our schools around. I’ll wholeheartedly pay more taxes [for schools] ... and I’m a registered Republican.”

But like the rest of the many teachers across the state, the District 68 teachers face daunting financial, political, and logistical challenges. None of them, for example, can afford campaign managers.

Angela Statum, a kindergarten teacher and a Democrat, has just raised $1,500 through a PayPal account, enough to buy her a stack of flyers and a few yard signs. A group of her friends have cheered her on and volunteered to canvass with her.

“I jumped into this with both feet,” she said.

Brobst has already spent more than $6,000, but has managed to raise only $3,000. He missed one of the debates when his pickup truck broke down on the side of the road.

And not all voters were sympathetic to teachers.

Oklahoma’s governors and legislators over the last decade have told parents their academic outcomes have stalled because of a lack of accountability, and they’ve tied test scores to teacher evaluations, issued grades for schools and districts, and expanded vouchers and charter schools in order to beef up competition for traditional public schools.

Several voters here asked teacher candidates to explain the public school system’s skyrocketing costs and poor outcomes.

“I’m not giving one more penny to schools,” said Todd Demuth, a voter who said he was especially frustrated with the state’s school administrative costs.

There are other nuisances: Some of Brobsts’ 6th graders went through town one weekend and, as a prank, tore down several of his signs. He heard them bragging about it in his school’s hallways.

The campaigns are registering with the public. Across the state, with so many teachers running for office, many politicians are being forced to say what they mean when they claim to be pro-public education. What that means long-term remains to be seen.

“These politicians will love us to our face and use us for a good photo opp,” Ross said in between knocking on Democrats’ doors to remind them to vote in the primary. “What I want to know is what are they doing when they’re not in front of us? Are they going to be a champion for our causes?”

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