Oklahoma Reflects Teacher Revolt That Could Reshape U.S. Politics

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Ronny Johns, principal of Ada Junior High school, is among a surge of fired-up educators who have stepped into the political ring. Photograph: Brett Deering for the Guardian

Brett Deering/The Guardian

Ronny Johns, principal of Ada Junior High School, is among a surge of fired-up educators who have stepped into the political ring. Photograph: Brett Deering for the Guardian

This story was originally published in The Guardian as part of a project on teacher pay, teacher activism and classroom funding in the United States. Click on this logo to see the complete three-day project.

Ronny Johns is an accidental Republican.

The Oklahoma school principal only signed up with the party a few years back so that his vote might mean something in a state where the Republican Party overwhelms politics. At the time, he was keen to vote against a state school superintendent he regarded as a disaster.

Johns stuck with the Republicans even as they used their grip on Oklahoma’s Legislature to bind the state ever tighter in what critics saw as an ideological straitjacket of tax and spending cuts at the cost of public services, not least education. He remained with the party as the number of teachers at his school plummeted, class sizes surged, and stagnant pay forced his staff to find second jobs. Even as students were reduced to studying from battered textbooks older than themselves and some Oklahoma schools opened just four days a week.

Now, after three decades in the classroom, Johns has had enough – and he is not alone. The principal of Ada Junior High School, in a small city in the southeast of the state, is among a surge of teachers who stepped out of the classroom and into politics on the back of a wave of school strikes across some of the most Republican states. Johns won his first-ever primary with a campaign focused on funding for schools and is favored to win election to the Oklahoma Legislature in November in what he sees as a backlash against years of his own party’s ideology.

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“People have seen what all the tax cuts can do to not only education but all of our state agencies whether it’s mental health, roads and bridges, prisons,” said Johns. “I think Oklahoma is moving away from the hardline conservative Republican to something more moderate. They see that the promises that were made have not delivered.”

The teacher strikes began in a corner of West Virginia in February to demand a pay increase and a better health care plan, and swiftly spread across the state with a two-week walkout. The protests fired up educators in other states often struggling with pay so low they held two jobs but also angered by falling school budgets. Teachers in Oklahoma followed with a nine-day strike. Educators in Arizona walked out for a week and those in Colorado for two.

Whitney Bryen / Oklahoma Watch

Protesters march in front of the Capitol on April 11, day eight of the Oklahoma teacher walkout.

The teachers won some of what they wanted. In West Virginia, educators got a 5 percent pay increase but not improved health care. Arizona’s teachers secured a significant pay rise and increased school funding.

But the wider impact of the protests has been on politics, not least within the Republican Party. The strikes radicalized some teachers, demonstrating not only their influence but the public support they command, and prompted a surge in educators running for office.

Hundreds are on ballots competing for state and local offices, and teachers have already claimed important political scalps. A math teacher in Kentucky ousted the Republican majority leader in the state legislature, and rising star of the party, from his seat in the GOP primary in May.

Nowhere has the existing political order been rocked more than in Oklahoma, where even the threat of a strike by teachers turned traditional Republican policy on its head. Public education is a major employer in many smaller, less prosperous communities and the GOP leadership in the Legislature recognized whose side voters were on. The politicians broke with years of cuts this year to impose the first tax rise since 1990.

They increased taxes on cigarettes, motor fuel and oil and gas drilling and to fund an average $6,100 pay hike for public school teachers. But educators walked out for nine days anyway to demand $200 million more in funding for schools. That set up a confrontation between legislators, who thought the teachers were not sufficiently grateful for the political leap they took in raising taxes, and educators who thought the politicians didn’t get that the strike was about more than pay.

Over a decade, Oklahoma’s per-pupil spending on K-12 education declined by 11 percent when adjusted for inflation, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. That led to bigger class sizes and fewer resources, with teachers leaving for better pay in other states.

The state’s governor, Mary Fallin, likened the striking teachers to “a teenage kid that wants a better car.” One Republican state representative, Jeff Coody, riled teachers by denouncing their strike as “akin to extortion.” Joan Gabelmann, an assistant principal in Lawton Public Schools, was so incensed she ran for the Democratic Party nomination for Coody’s district and won it against another educator. Gabelmann said that Coody’s reaction was typical of the reception teachers received when they marched on the State Capitol in support of increased school funding.

“Ninety percent of the politicians were extremely disrespectful and did not want to hear our voices,” she said. “It angered a lot of people and it caused a lot of disillusionment. The misconception was the teachers got their raise so what’s your problem? It’s not about a raise. It’s about funding education for our kids.”

Carri Hicks, a math and science teacher who earned a modest salary working full time and is running for a state Senate seat in Oklahoma City, was angered by a meeting with a Republican senator on the education committee.

“He told me I was lying when I shared with him my class sizes. I made the decision that if they weren’t going to listen to teachers and understand the complicated issues that we’re tackling in the classroom right now, then we’ve got to get somebody to serve who actually understands what it feels like to be in those overcrowded, underfunded classrooms to make any kind of movement on this issue,” she said.

State Rep. Mike Ritze’s vote against the tax hike to pay for the teacher salary increase prompted a challenge from four teachers. (Ritze voted in favor of the pay increase itself.) Janice Graham, who spent 35 years as a school psychologist and educator, said she was so offended by Ritze’s attitude that she ventured into politics for the first time and won the Democratic nomination to run for his seat in November.

“What happened in the walkout showed to me how little we are represented. They did not listen. Mike Ritze was very rude to educators. Shame on us for letting him go unopposed all these years. None of us had our eyes on it. The teacher walkout just turned the lights on. It was, ‘Look at these people.’ If they’re not representing teachers, who else aren’t they representing?” said Graham. “I’m 58. I’m a smart woman. I’m a strong woman. I thought, I’m going to put my hat in.”

Mike Boettcher / Unfiltered/OU Gaylord College of Journalism and Mass Communication

Teachers and their supporters packed the State Capitol building in early April, determined to sustain their protest over the state’s relatively low per-pupil education funding.

Johns – who also joined the strike because he is weary of seeing teachers at his school leave for better-paid jobs in neighboring Texas or Arkansas, and of class sizes that jumped from about 15 students to 25 – said he was disturbed by the response of some Republican politicians to the teachers.

“It really surprised me when I saw how some of the legislators were reacting to some of the teachers. It wasn’t how they should have been received,” he said.

The strike, or the response of many Republican legislators to it, prompted Oklahoma’s teachers to line up in record numbers to run for office and they had the public behind them. Tens of thousands of people turned out to back the educators at the Capitol. Teachers were fair game for Republican politicians for years.

The New Jersey governor, Chris Christie, thought it good politics to respond to teacher complaints about underfunded schools by shouting at them to do their jobs, and to tell a teachers union it deserved “a punch in the face.”

But that was no longer true in Oklahoma. Of the 19 Republicans in the state Legislature who voted against the tax increases to fund teacher pay raises, eight lost their primary races months later. Education figured large in their downfall even if it was not the only factor. Seven others decided not to run for reelection, leaving only four of the original 19 on the ballot in November. Coody and Ritz were among those who were voted out.

Hicks’ Republican opponent, state Sen. Ervin Yen, also fell in the primary.

“Teachers have got smart about their politics and say, ‘You’ve been lying to us. Yes, you supported the teacher raise but you didn’t vote for the revenue to pay for schools so we’re not going to take your empty promises any longer. We’re voting you out.’ I think it’s awoken this sleeping giant. I just hope that the fire in our bellies carries through to the polls,” said Hicks.

When the teachers walked out in Oklahoma, they found ready support from those voters weary of the Republicans’ economic policies. Years of tax and service cuts in the state intensified after the Tea Party wave in 2010 and the election of Fallin as governor.

Voters were told that lower taxes would prompt a boom in business and prosperity. That didn’t happen. Conservatives pointed to a collapse in the price of oil as the culprit, with Oklahoma suffering a plunge in revenue that helped lead to a billion-dollar budget deficit.

But until this year, the Legislature rejected tax-raising measures – even some backed by Fallin – and instead elected to cut budgets as Oklahoma highway patrol officers were ordered to limit the number of miles they drove in order to save fuel, rural clinics were closed because of Medicaid cuts, and public infrastructure deteriorated.

“Everybody thinks that Oklahoma is a traditionally red state but there’s a lot of people being awakened,” said Jacobi Crowley, a 26-year-old African-American teaching assistant and a church minister, who is bidding to become the youngest state senator in the country for a district around Lawton in southwestern Oklahoma.

“People have been asleep on issues and things that have been affecting the state of Oklahoma like education, criminal justice reform, economic diversity – all those big topics. It’s not that they have not been interested in it. They have been focused on their family, focused on their job. Now that people are able to sit down and really hear what’s going on and see the numbers, you’re seeing a lot more people saying, ‘How did we get here? How can we fix this?’

“There’s an understanding that if you’re not involved, then there are consequences.” Crowley is a crisis intervention worker and assistant football coach in the Lawton area, and holds down a second job selling advertising to make ends meet.

Gabelmann said the teachers strike finally focused public attention on what many parents have known for years as the bills for basic classroom supplies, sometimes running into the hundreds of dollars, arrived at the beginning of each school term.

“Schools have been strip-mined of our money. That trickle-down economics, we’re a poster child for what can happen when that’s allowed to occur through voter apathy,” she said. “It’s a good thing we have an election in November. My heart just sings. It’s sad on one side but on the other we have voters that are more aware of the situation, and because of the teachers’ situation, they’re now also more aware with what’s going on in health care and services. We don’t need these grey-haired old men making decisions about our lives. I do think people are paying attention more so than they have before in our state.”

Correction: A previous version of the story incorrectly stated that state Sen. Mike Ritze voted against a measure to increase teacher salaries. Ritze voted in favor of the pay increase. He voted against a tax hike to fund the pay increase.

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U.S. Spends More on Education Than Other Countries. Why Is it Falling Behind?