Erika Wright has been a Democrat and a Republican, and, until recently, was registered Independent. “I tend to vote for people versus party,” she said.
She made another switch last week — back to Republican — specifically to vote for state superintendent of public instruction in the primary.
Three candidates have announced. All are Republicans: John Cox, Peggs Public Schools superintendent; April Grace, Shawnee Public Schools superintendent; and Ryan Walters, state Secretary of Education.
Under that scenario, the race would be over before the general election in November, decided only by registered Republicans.
“It’s that important for me, personally, to have a voice in that election,” said Wright, an advocate for rural schools who previously served on the Noble Public Schools board.
Candidate filing is April 13-15, so there’s still time for other candidates to join the race. But the window for raising enough funds to be competitive is narrowing.
Oklahoma Democratic Party Chairwoman Alicia Andrews said she’s been talking with teachers and school administrators, trying to gauge interest and willingness to run.
“I’m still hopeful. I have not ruled it out,” Andrews said, adding: “I do think we will get a teacher to step up.”
How Oklahoma Republicans’ Advantage Extends To Education
It’s a scrabble to run any political race as a Democrat in Oklahoma, where Donald Trump swept all 77 counties twice, the five-member congressional delegation is all Republican and more than half of legislative races in 2020 went uncontested in the general election.
Oklahoma’s primary elections are closed, though parties can choose to allow Independent voters. Democrats opted to open their primary to Independents in 2022 and 2023, as they have in previous elections. Republicans did not.
The primary is June 28.
Voters are prohibited from changing party affiliation between April 1 and Aug. 31.
That’s why Wright, an administrator of the Oklahoma Rural Schools Coalition Facebook group with more than 6,000 members, is encouraging others to switch parties now in order to ensure they can vote in the Republican primary.
State Sen. Mary Boren, D-Norman, was elected in 2018, the year of the teacher walkout when nearly 60 educators ran for seats in the Legislature. Amid the pandemic and ongoing political fights over schools, teachers are demoralized and may not have the bandwidth to run for office — particularly as a Democrat, Boren said.
Democrats, she said, have until April to identify a “champion for education.”
“Politically, I think it makes a lot of sense to wait until the last minute, because if you’re going to be treated awfully and called names and demonized, it shortens the time that you’ll be treated that way,” she said. “You can focus on May to November.”
Oklahoma teachers are already more likely to be registered Republican than the general population, according to a 2016 analysis by SoonerPoll, an Oklahoma pollster. And in 2014, more than 1,200 educators re-registered with the GOP for the primary between incumbent Janet Barresi, Joy Hofmeister, and Brian Kelly, according to the Enid News and Eagle. Teachers rallied behind Hofmeister in an effort to defeat Barresi, whose administration was heavily criticized over student testing and school evaluations.
Hofmeister received 58% of the vote, avoiding a runoff and securing the Republican nomination, and eventually winning the seat. Nearing the end of her second term, she is running for governor as a Democrat.
Barresi and Walters shared a stage at a meeting of the Oklahoma Conservative Political Action Committee last month, according to a video posted on Rumble, a right-wing video-streaming platform. Barresi’s message focused on legislation to bar critical race theory from K-12 schools, though, not the superintendent race.
Walters is favored by Gov. Kevin Stitt, who has publicly disagreed with Hofmeister multiple times over pandemic precautions and other education issues. Stitt appointed Walters to Secretary of Education in 2020, and has contributed $2,900 (the individual maximum) to his campaign, records show.
The Candidates, So Far
Walters is a former history teacher and the chief executive officer of Every Kid Counts Oklahoma, a private advocacy group that supported legislation in 2021 to expand student transfers and alter the school funding formula by shortening the time shrinking districts have to adjust to funding levels. He was also part of the push to implement House Bill 1775, the so-called Critical Race Theory legislation, which prohibits teachers from teaching certain concepts surrounding race and gender.
Every Kid Counts was picked by Stitt to oversee the Digital Wallet COVID-19 relief program, which distributed $1,500 grants to low-income families for educational materials.
Walters’ Republican opponents are both longtime educators and public school district superintendents. Grace has been an educator for 30 years and was recently named the 2021 State Superintendent of the Year by the Oklahoma Association of School Administrators.
Shawnee Public Schools, the district she has led as superintendent since 2016, is facing a sex abuse scandal. An assistant athletic director is accused of sexual misconduct and a sheriff’s deputy’s statement indicates the man has had inappropriate contact with students before, according to The Oklahoman. Grace said the district is assisting law enforcement and conducting an internal investigation.
The other candidate, Cox, has been an educator for 36 years. He’s also president of the Organization of Rural Elementary Schools, an advocacy group that hosts school sports playoffs and an annual student academic competition.
Cox ran for state superintendent in 2014 and 2018 as a Democrat, but is now running as a Republican.
Campaign totals by the end of September were $135,825 for Grace, $104,170 for Walters, and $20,750 for Cox. Reports through the end of 2021 are due Jan. 31.
Hofmeister, through a campaign spokesman, said it would be premature to endorse any of the candidates.
“I’m definitely interested in who will succeed me as state superintendent and who I would be working with as governor, but it is far too early and too speculative to endorse anyone now,” she said in a written statement.
The state superintendent’s role includes overseeing the state’s more than 540 public school districts and nearly 700,000 students. The superintendent also chairs the state Board of Education and the state Board of Career and Technology Education.
Oklahoma’s one of a dozen states that elects its state superintendent. In 2020, Stitt told The Oklahoman he wants the state schools chief to be appointed by the governor, a move that would require a constitutional amendment.
The office has been held by Hofmeister since 2015. Under her leadership, the state revamped its school report cards, implemented a career planning program for middle and high school students, and handled the spending of $232 million in federal education dollars for pandemic relief programs across the state. She also responded to the investigative audit of Epic Charter Schools by withholding nearly $9 million for overpayment.
The Oklahoma Education Association, the state’s largest teacher member organization, in 2018 began providing training for pro-public education candidates.
This year’s training, Run the Race 2022, is Jan. 22. Non-members can attend by being sponsored by a member. The focus is on preparing candidates for state-level offices and school board races, as well as how to volunteer for a campaign.
For more information, call OEA at (405) 523-4310.
Jennifer Palmer has been a reporter with Oklahoma Watch since 2016 and covers education. Contact her at (405) 761-0093 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @jpalmerOKC.