Fed Up With State’s K-12 Stance, Okla. Teachers Run for Office

By Daarel Burnette II — August 19, 2016 8 min read
Shawn Sheehan, a math and special education teacher in Norman, Okla., and the current state teacher of the year, prepares his classroom for the opening of school while running for a seat in the state Senate.
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Fueled by their fury over cuts to K-12 budgets, low pay, and an array of other grievances, a scrappy group of teachers is attempting to upend Oklahoma’s political establishment this election season.

After ousting the state’s superintendent in a 2014 primary, the loosely organized group of educators from around the state successfully campaigned to scrap the state’s teacher-evaluation system that was tied to students’ test scores. They notched another victory when they lobbied to defeat a bill backed by Republican Gov. Mary Fallin that would’ve expanded the use of vouchers.

So last spring, when someone suggested to their Facebook group that they start legislating themselves, more than 40 teachers filed to run for one of the 126 open seats in the state’s Senate and House of Representatives.

If enough of the estimated 43 educators win their races in the November general election, they could nudge the deeply conservative state to the left on several education issues.

“If you’re not going to do your job, I want your seat,” said Shawn Sheehan, the state’s current teacher of the year, who’s running as an independent for a state Senate seat.

Outside the political apparatus of teachers’ unions, individual educators have historically not been so active in rough-and-tumble political and policymaking arenas. Even though they are the real-world experts on the day-to-day challenges of educating children, it’s often noneducators who shape the policies that impact their jobs. But a number of recent policy shifts have politically animated teachers across the country. In some places, they’ve bombarded school board meetings, staged noisy rallies, and convinced thousands of parents to opt their children out of taking standardized tests.

Ras J. Baraka, a former high school teacher and principal in Newark, N.J., successfully ran for city council and then was elected mayor after parents turned against a school reform agenda in the city that was bankrolled largely by a $100 million donation from Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg.

Recently retired teacher Judy Mullen Hopper, right, uses a smartphone app to campaign for her state Senate run with volunteer Tasha Hall in Oklahoma City earlier this month. Dozens of educators are running for seats in the Oklahoma legislature this election cycle.

In Kansas, where the state supreme court recently ruled that lawmakers must fix the state’s K-12 funding formula, an estimated 50 current candidates for statewide offices are teachers, administrators, and former members of local boards.

Many teachers now see an opportune moment as the new federal K-12 law—the Every Student Succeeds Act—shifts much of the education policymaking authority to states.

In Oklahoma, one of those teachers is Mickey Dollens, a former roughneck oil driller and former Olympic bobsledder who was laid off after his first year teaching high school English.

Another is Judy Mullen Hopper, a special education teacher in the Putnam City school district who served as her school’s union rep before abruptly retiring out of frustration with new teacher evaluations and testing requirements for students with disabilities.

“We were teaching to the test, we weren’t getting pay raises and we were at the bottom of the barrel on everything,” said Hopper. “It’s time that they start listening to what we have to say.”

Mounting a Credible Campaign

But mounting a credible campaign requires hard work and money. And while they are all active on their shared social-media platforms, the teachers haven’t established a sophisticated campaign operation that can support multiple candidates.

The group of educator-candidates—loosely branded as the teacher caucus—has yet to agree on a common platform. The statewide teachers union will soon decide which candidates to endorse and support with financial contributions.

Some of their opponents are sharing a $100,000 contribution from the American Federation for Children, a supporter of school choice, to help pay for blistering attack ads against them, framing the teachers as political novices looking for a bigger paycheck.

The educators have also drawn scorn from other corners.

The editorial board for The Daily Oklahoman wrote that the organizers of the Facebook group embody “the worst stereotypes of fringe activists, including mudslinging and worse. … In a nutshell, the online communities of supposedly ‘pro-education’ activists are marked by self-contradictions, inconsistency, infighting, apparent dishonesty, and more.”

In Oklahoma, voters care about education as much as they care about putting limits on abortion and preserving gun rights, according to recent polls.

The collapse of the state’s oil industry has created a billion-dollar budget deficit and the state’s legislators in recent years have cut the K-12 education budget by almost 24 percent, resulting in massive layoffs, overcrowded classrooms, and the axing of many extra-curricular programs across school districts.

At the same time, the state is coping with a teacher shortage that many educators attribute to the state’s low pay and the lack of respect for their profession. On average, teachers in Oklahoma make $44,921 annually, including benefits—among the lowest in the country. And the last time teachers got a raise was in 2008.

A key measure on the November ballot seeks to address the pay issue. Voters will decide whether to approve a 1 percent statewide sales-tax increase to, among other things, provide teachers with a $5,000 increase in pay.

Gov. Fallin, who opposes the sales tax increase, has proposed a special session to convince legislators to instead spend a $140 million surplus to increase teacher pay.

Earlier this year, a GOP lawmaker proposed a bill to get rid of certification and background check requirements for teachers, a move that was widely viewed as an assault on the teaching profession. It didn’t pass, but the prospect deeply offended educators.

“The frustration from parents, students and teachers just reached a critical mass,” said Rick Cobb, the superintendent of the Mid-Delschool district in Oklahoma City. Cobb writes a popular blog that regularly rails against the state department of education and legislature. “We reached a tipping point.”

Power of Social Media

Many teachers here attribute the birth of their movement to an electrifying rally in 2014, when more than 25,000 educators, decked out in red, converged on the steps of the state capitol in Oklahoma City to protest cuts to education.

Shortly afterward, Angela Little, a parent of twin sons who lives in a suburb of Oklahoma City and was frustrated by the common-core standards and the number of assessments in schools, started a Facebook group with teachers who shared her views. The closed group’s mission is to “bring awareness to the truths of the current education reform being forced upon districts, throughout Oklahoma, from state and federal officials.”

In between memes that make jabs at the absurdity of school culture, teachers use the space to discuss their day-to-day headaches on the job that they blame on policy changes, including a 3rd grade retention law, ever-evolving classroom standards, and a new A-F school accountability system. They regularly rail against the local media for what they call “biased” coverage.

When the state’s superintendent, Janet Barresi, was up for re-election two years ago, they urged their growing group of followers to campaign against her, largely through social media. She placed third in the Republican primary.

After that success, the Facebook group doubled and then tripled in size and soon they were turning their attention toward state legislators. The group, called Oklahoma Parents and Educators for Public Education, has more than 24,000 members now.

When legislators earlier this year tried to pass through a bill that would expand the use of taxpayer funded vouchers, the group flooded their inboxes and lobbied them on Twitter under the hashtag #oklaed. Despite a robo call from Gov. Fallin to voters in support of the bill, it failed.

“What we’ve seen is a strong bipartisan movement in favor in public education. And the voices have been heard by legislators,” said David Blatt, the executive director of the Oklahoma Policy Institute, a Tulsa-based bipartisan think tank.

On the Trail

The races are spread across the entire state and teachers have had to expand their political messaging to weigh in on social issues such as gay rights, health insurance, and how to care for the growing population of elderly.

The candidates say they deal directly with state’s pressing social issues daily in their classrooms.

Like any candidate might, the teachers are reaching out to Rotary clubs, chambers of commerce, and American Indian tribes to garner support, especially campaign money.

The moderators of the Facebook group have scrambled to organize themselves, publishing a list of endorsements and urging their members to help candidates canvass.

Many of them are squeezing door-to-door campaigning and participating in political debates between their back-to-school meetings.

During a recent afternoon canvassing trip, Hopper, along with another teacher, weaved through streets lined with bungalow homes in heat that sometimes topped 100 degrees.

They were knocking on doors of Independents and Republicans. Hopper, who is a Democrat running for the state Senate, is challenging the incumbent Republican who is the vice chairman of the Senate appropriations committee.

At one home, Hopper made her pitch to resident Donnie Biggerstaff, telling him that she’s a teacher running for the Senate. She didn’t mention her own political party, but she seemed to have found a supporter in the Republican grandfather who’d just recently moved from Texas.

“The state’s run by a good-old-boy system,” he said. “The teachers deserve more respect and higher pay, that’s for sure.”

Said Hopper: “Well, if I get there, we’re going to talk about it.”

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A version of this article appeared in the August 24, 2016 edition of Education Week as Okla. Teachers Shake Up Politics, Run for Office


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