The idea of running for public office, much less being part of the Oklahoma Legislature, was never on Mike Mason’s mind during his 31-year career as a science teacher at Putnam City High School and Mustang High School.
That, however, changed after he agreed to meet with Oklahoma Education Association leaders earlier this year about whether he would consider running for office. Already upset at the state’s relatively low education funding, Mason received encouragement and decided to jump into the Senate District 47 contest in south Oklahoma City.
“I just got tired of watching our district the past few years have to cut, cut and cut some more, all while the Legislature just continues to waffle on getting anything done,” he said. “But I’m not a politician. I’m a teacher who is trying to learn to be a politician.”
Mason is one of at least 63 current or former educators, administrators, school staff members or school board members who are part of the record-setting number of legislative challengers running for office this year.
Hoping to capitalize on voter anger over education issues, members of this “education caucus” are looking to unseat incumbents or seize races that are up for grabs this year.
But getting elected and pushing through more education funding and reforms will be no easy task. The crop of new candidates largely lacks the political experience and fundraising abilities of their opponents.
Snapshot of the ‘Caucus’
Of the group of 63 candidates with direct ties to education, 39 are Democrats, 23 are Republicans and one is an independent.
Many of them came to the State Capitol on April 13 to file for office, joined by several other candidates who have family members who are educators or who are running mainly on a platform calling for more attention and funding for education.
Angela Clark Little, an education activist who founded Oklahoma Parents and Educators for Public Education, a Facebook group with more than 22,000 members, said this show of force illustrates the frustration felt by educators and parents over inadequate funding of public schools.
“We know there are a lot of candidates who stepped up to run on behalf of the cause and we are so thankful since that is really a leap of faith and it is a lot of work,” Little said. “We know we are not going to win every race and that’s OK. But if we can win a few, we will feel like we’ve done something good for our kids and our state.”
The unprecedented number of candidates with education links wasn’t an accident.
Advocates such as Little and groups such as the Oklahoma Education Association actively recruited or encouraged a number of the candidates to run. Other candidates acted on their own initiative.
Cache Public Schools Superintendent Rand Batt, who is running as a Democrat for the House seat now held by Rep. Jeff Coody, R-Grandfield, said he was not initially familiar with any concerted effort to get educators to run for office.
“It was just the frustration with all the finances,” he said. “This was never something on my bucket list, but it was something where I had the opportunity to step up and do something.”
Many educators running for office will have face their first political test later this month.
Forty-five of the 63 candidates face a primary opponent and will be on the ballot during the June 28 election. Only three of those will face an incumbent – often a more difficult proposition.
The other 19 are unopposed in the primary and thus get a free pass to November’s general election.
One of the three facing an incumbent is Mason, who is running against Sen. Kyle Loveless, R-Oklahoma City, in the Republican primary in Senate District 45.
Mason acknowledged it will be a challenge for him to raise funds and communicate to voters about his platform in the short run-up to the primary vote. Even after loaning his own campaign $10,000, he doubts he will be able to compete financially.
“I just hope after 20 years teaching in Mustang, there are students, graduates and then their parents or kids who know me,” he said. “But then you have to think about what percentage of those are Republican or what percent of those are going to show up in a primary in the middle of June and vote.”
The two other incumbent legislators who face primary opponents with education ties are Reps. Scott Martin, R-Norman, and Charles Ortega, R-Altus.
Meanwhile, 20 of the educators-turned-candidates will potentially face an incumbent in the general election, assuming they and the incumbents get past the primary.
Batt, who doesn’t face a Democratic primary opponent, is already planning for the potential match-up against Coody. He said he hopes voters look beyond political affiliation when making a choice.
“Your hardcore Republicans and hardcore Democrats, they are going to be hard to change,” he said. “But I know there are a lot of Republican educators out there, and I just hope they remember what their calling is because this should be a bipartisan issue.“
What Awaits Winners
Sen. Ron Sharp, R-Shawnee, vice chair of the Senate Education Committee, is one of a handful of current or past educators now serving in the Legislature.
Sharp, a former teacher, said he shares many of the concerns about low teacher pay and the need for more classroom funding. But after serving in the Senate for four years, he said passing meaningful changes is a herculean task, especially since next year’s Legislature will likely face another sizable budget shortfall.
“I’m glad to see so many educators run since I think they are feeling abused and in many cases they are,” he said. “The challenge, if this groups gets elected, is that you face dealing with finding increased revenues.”
Sharp also cautioned that education candidates who get elected can’t afford to be single-issue legislators. They will also need to grasp issues such as criminal justice, tourism and wildlife.
But if even a few members of this group are elected to office, they could influence the mindset of other legislators who don’t directly experience the budget crunch faced by schools.
“There are really not that many educators in the Legislature, and what a lot of the others know about education is based on what they remember when they were in school,” he said. “And it’s just not like that any more. They don’t understand everything that teachers face.”
Little, the education activist, acknowledged that even if many education candidates are elected, it will take work to pass significant changes.
If few of them are elected, at least the effort will have sent a message, she said.
“We are at least waking people up and making people maybe be more accountable what they’ve done,” she said.
An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that state Sen. John Enns faces a primary challenger. Jeremy Coleman initially challenged Enns for the GOP nomination but later dropped out after being challenged over residency requirements. That reduced the total number of education-associated candidates to 63.