Two years after Oklahoma educators walked out of their classrooms and stormed the state Capitol, fewer teachers are running for state legislative seats.
This year, more than 50 education candidates launched campaigns for legislative seats, down from 112 candidates who ran in 2018, according to figures from the Oklahoma Education Association.
The state’s largest teachers union counts current or retired teachers, schools support staff and candidates who are serving on a local school board as education candidates because of their ties to public schools.
Why are fewer education candidates running for office?
Winning more seats in the statehouse is no longer critical to teachers having a say in policy matters because the power dynamic has fundamentally changed, education advocates said.
The teacher walkout and the 2018 victories of public education candidates brought the issue to the forefront of the Oklahoma Legislature, said Alicia Priest, president of the Oklahoma Education Association.
“We have seen a shift in how the legislature works and their openness and their willingness to talk and vote for pro-public education issues and to not put up for a vote things that would be harmful to public education,” she said.
Even in the years before the walkout there was a growing emphasis on where candidates stood on public education, said Rep. Sherrie Conley, R-Newcastle.
Teachers and other education professionals in Oklahoma often cite the extensive cuts public education faced following the 2008 economic downturn. Education funding in Oklahoma still hasn’t been restored to pre-recession levels.
The attention the walkout brought to public education made Republicans think more about the issues facing our teachers, children and schools. It’s been a positive development that lawmakers have sought to protect public education moving forward, said Conley, a former elementary school teacher and administrator.
“It’s not a partisan issue,” she said. “It’s a human issue. It’s important for everyone.”
In 2018, the average Oklahoma teacher saw a pay increase of about $6,100 following a historic legislative vote to raise a variety of taxes. The following year, state leaders approved pay raises of around $1,200 for the vast majority of Oklahoma teachers. This year, most retired Oklahoma teachers saw a cost-of-living adjustment in their pension checks due to legislation many retired employees said was long overdue.
Adding more teacher voices to the mix helps change the conversation when it comes to state budget cuts or in the good years, where the legislature can boost spending, said Sen. J.J. Dossett, D-Owasso. It also helped change the overall goals of the legislature, he said.
As asking candidates their education priorities has become the norm in election years, people may be starting to realize that educators aren’t the only supporters of public education out there, he said.
“You don’t need a teacher to run to have an education-friendly candidate,” he said. “I think the value that a teacher and educator can bring with the first experience is huge, as far as making policy, but there’s a lot of good education candidates.”
Education in the coronavirus era
Although fewer teachers are running for office, many remain politically engaged and continue to pay attention to the rhetoric coming from the legislature and Oklahoma’s other elected officials.
The COVID-19 pandemic has spurred a new wave of education-related concerns.
Educators and schools support staff have had to remain engaged because school has been so unpredictable in recent months as districts have had to decide whether to have in-person classes, virtual schooling or some mix of the two, Priest said.
“Our members are absolutely engaged and COVID is another reason why they have to be engaged, because we need leaders for our state who will look at science and the medical professionals and make good, sound policy decisions for our citizens,” Priest said.
She criticized the governor for not mandating Oklahomans statewide wear masks in public places. And she questioned why members of the state Board of Education didn’t mandate masks in schools, which have already seen hundreds of cases since school began in August.
In July, state schools superintendent Joy Hofmeister proposed a plan that would’ve mandated masks in school districts located in counties with community spread. The State Board of Education, consisting mostly of members appointed by Stitt, turned the mandate into a suggestion on a 4-3 vote.
The pandemic likely factors into why fewer teachers are running for elected offices this year, said Rep. Jacob Rosecrants, D-Norman. COVID-19 started spreading in Oklahoma in March, before candidate filing in April.
But education as it relates to the coronavirus is as much of a hot topic now as education was two years ago, said Rosecrants, a former teacher who was elected in a special election in 2017.
“There was a lull, I would say from 2018 to around the coronavirus time and education has popped up to be very important again,” he said. “That’s probably because our teachers are first responders on the front lines.”
Rosecrants said there may also be less motivation for teachers to run for legislative seats now that there are about two dozen former teachers at the statehouse.
Unless you’re really driven to serve, it’s also difficult to teach and campaign at the same time. Trying to affect change through the educators who are already elected is easier than mounting a full-blown campaign, he said.
Nancy Sangirardi is all for electing more teachers, but she wants to bring a different perspective to the legislature. A Republican and former teacher of 16 years, Sangirardi is challenging Rosecrants in House District 46.
She said she wants to see more Republican women in the legislature advocating on behalf of women, children and of course, teachers and students.
Where Rosecrants has advocated for closing schools to reduce the spread of COVID-19, Sangirardi thinks in-person schooling is the best approach to ensure students are learning and safe.
Democratic teachers seem to get a lot of the public attention, but the legislature needs more education voices from across the aisle that can bring another perspective, Sangirardi said.
“I’m just saying we need a fair and even balance,” she said. “They come up with good ideas, we come up with good ideas. Let’s just work on them together.”
Rosecrants expects the number of education candidates will rise again in 2022 as teachers toss their hats in the ring to help deal with the aftermath of the pandemic.
The teacher shortage is likely to be exacerbated by the teachers who quit or retire due to the pandemic. And more teachers could be inspired to run if the economic effects of the pandemic result in cuts to education funding, he said.
“I don’t think education can take much more cuts,” he said. “If anything, they need more (funding) to keep the PPE and all the kinds of things you need in a school to keep teachers wanting to teach there.
“It’s going to be something, and I think there’s going to be a push for more educators, or at least education-knowledgeable candidates.”
This COVID-19/education reporting is made possible through a grant from the Walton Family Foundation. It was prepared by The Oklahoman and StateImpact Oklahoma and distributed through the Oklahoma Media Center project Changing Course: Education and COVID. The Oklahoma Media Center is a collaborative of 18 Oklahoma newsrooms that includes print, broadcast and digital partners.