Oklahoma teachers shift from marching to running for office

Published 7:41 am Friday, April 13, 2018

OKLAHOMA CITY — When Oklahoma second-grade teacher Cyndi Ralston heard her state representative berate teachers for walking out of the classroom and marching on the Capitol, she knew she’d be running against him in November.

Rep. Kevin McDugle, an ex-Marine Corps drill instructor, chastised teachers in a video he posted on Facebook for failing to thank lawmakers after he and other Republicans voted in favor of tax hikes to fund a teacher raise.

“I’m not voting for another stinking measure when they’re acting the way they’re acting,” Republican McDugle said.

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The walkout that shuttered schools in many of Oklahoma’s largest districts for two straight weeks came to an end on Thursday, although some districts already had planned to close on Friday, including Oklahoma City and Tulsa.

The largest teachers union is calling for its members to shift their focus to electing pro-education candidates in November. Ralston is among at least a dozen teachers, most of them first-time candidates, who are taking heed.

“There are so many parents, community members and students up here seeing what’s going on and how they (lawmakers) are not responding to the voices of the people they represent,” Ralston said after filing her candidacy papers. “I think it’s going to grow.”

The teacher-led rebellion over low wages and funding cuts has spread from its genesis in West Virginia to Arizona, Kentucky and Oklahoma. Oklahoma’s teacher walkout coincided with the three days when Oklahoma allows candidates to file for elective offices, giving frustrated educators an outlet for their enthusiasm. And as Kentucky’s legislative session wound down this year after a fight over teacher pensions, teachers mobilized to support legislative candidates, and the influential Kentucky Education Association signaled it would turn its attention to the ballot box.

Amanda Jeffers, a Democrat and a high school English teacher in Oklahoma, said she was spurred by the teacher movement to run against a Republican incumbent, even though she acknowledges an uphill battle in a district with a 2-to-1 GOP registration advantage.

“Looking at my district, there really hasn’t been anyone stepping up to the plate, so I thought: ‘Well, how about me?’” Jeffers said.

Despite the disadvantage on paper, Jeffers said she thinks the teacher movement could put some wind in her sails in an election where Democrats already are energized.

A similar effort by dozens of Oklahoma teachers in the 2016 election, most of them Democrats, was largely unsuccessful, but the Oklahoma Democratic Party’s 25-year-old chairwoman, Anna Langthorn, said she senses this cycle is different.

“Voters are more receptive, engaged and aware about what the issues actually are, and there’s not a presidential election at the top of the ticket,” Langthorn said, “so we’re focusing on Oklahoma issues, and I think that will give everybody a head start.”