TOPICS > Education > Making the Grade

Affected by budget cuts and testing, dozens of Oklahoma teachers are running for office

October 4, 2016 at 6:25 PM EDT
Oklahoma ranks 45 out of 50 states in spending per student. It’s home to overcrowded classrooms and more than 100 districts that have approved four-day school weeks. Now, more than 40 teachers who are tired of not being heard are trying to change things themselves -- by running for office. Special correspondent Lisa Stark of Education Week reports.
LISTENSEE PODCASTS

JUDY WOODRUFF: In some parts of the country, it’s not just the presidential race on voters’ minds. State elections are taking center stage in some places, too, like Oklahoma, where education is at the forefront of the ballot.

Teachers are upset over spending cuts and what they see as a political assault on public education. They have decided it’s time to take matters into their own hands. A record number of teachers are running for seats in the state legislature. All of this comes as Oklahoma faces tough budget decisions.

Special correspondent Lisa Stark of our partner Education Week reports from Oklahoma as part of our weekly segment Making the Grade.

LISA STARK: Football is king in Oklahoma, so it’s no surprise the Norman High School homecoming parade shuts down the town’s main street.

There’s candy for the kids, cheerleaders, and athletes, of course, and enjoying the ride, Oklahoma’s teacher of the year, whose day job is deciphering algebra for ninth graders at Norman High.

This is Shawn Sheehan’s sixth year teaching.

So, you love being a teacher?

SHAWN SHEEHAN, Oklahoma Teacher of the Year: I do. I love it. I love working with kids. I really do. And I love math. That sounds super nerdy, but I do love math.

LISA STARK: So, it may seem odd that Sheehan, Oklahoma’s top teacher, is ready to hang up the white board.

SHAWN SHEEHAN: I made the decision to run for state Senate.

I think what it is, is, we have is a lack of representation at the state capitol. We have folks up there who don’t really understand what’s going on in education and what’s going on in our communities.

LISA STARK: He’s not the only one who feels that way. Sheehan has joined more than 40 educators who have filed to run for the Oklahoma legislature.

Why do you think so many educators are running this year?

SHAWN SHEEHAN: I think, in this state, educators are finally fed up. And it’s almost like a sense of, we don’t have anything to lose at this point.

LISA STARK: Oklahoma schools have already lost a lot. The state ranks 47 out of 50 in per-pupil spending. And since 2008, the legislature has cut spending per student by 24 percent, the largest drop in the nation, leading to teacher layoffs, overcrowded classrooms. More than 100 districts have approved four-day school weeks. Teachers and parents are riled up.

DAVID BOREN, President, University of Oklahoma: They are really concerned about the education of their children.

LISA STARK: David Boren is president of the University of Oklahoma, and a former U.S. senator and governor.

DAVID BOREN: We’re headed for dead last in what we spend in the nation among all the states on the education of our students, and we’re losing our best and brightest teachers to all the states that surround us, because they pay so much more in their salaries, every single one of them. So, we’re at a crossroads.

LISA STARK: Salaries average about $45,000 a year, including benefits. It’s so hard to attract teachers that the state this school year has already approved more than 900 emergency certifications.

Currently, an estimated 50,000 students are relying on these teachers, who may not be fully qualified to take over a classroom.

GENE PERRY, Oklahoma Policy Institute: And that’s troubling.

LISA STARK: Gene Perry is the policy director at a progressive Oklahoma think tank.

GENE PERRY: What I think it’s shown is that experience and that training is the most important thing to have to be an effective teacher, and we’re putting untrained people in the classroom.

LISA STARK: Educators say they have tried to change things from outside the capitol, rallying for more money for education. Instead, lawmakers cut taxes, even when the state’s oil industry was booming. Now the industry’s in a slump, and there’s no money to spare.

JUDY MULLEN HOPPER: Hello, sir. I’m Judy Mullen Hopper.

LISA STARK: So, educators are now trying to get inside the capitol.

Judy Mullen Hopper is vying for the state Senate. She retired after 35 years as a special-ed teacher, unhappy over the emphasis on testing.

JUDY MULLEN HOPPER: But our biggest concern right now is education, and being able to finance it correctly, being able to allow teachers to teach the way they used to teach, you know?

MICKEY DOLLENS: I just wanted to come back by and ask for your vote on November 8.

LISA STARK: Mickey Dollens is campaigning for the state House, one of 1,500 Oklahoma teachers let go last spring because of budget cuts.

MICKEY DOLLENS: I am sticking up for education, mental health, senior citizens, and public safety. That’s where all my time and attention will go into. Check out my campaign headquarters.

LISA STARK: His headquarters? Right behind his front door.

MICKEY DOLLENS: These are probably the most important parts right here, the follow-up thank-you letters. I try to hit a 100 doors a day.

LISA STARK: Dollens was a college football player, a Team USA bobsledder, even drilled for oil, before he became a high school English teacher. He’s reinventing himself again.

How to win a local election?

MICKEY DOLLENS: Mm-hmm.

LISA STARK: A complete step-by-step guide.

MICKEY DOLLENS: Yes, I read them all.

LISA STARK: Dollens and the other educators running for office have been dubbed the teacher caucus.

WOMAN: We’re definitely going to go vote for you.

MICKEY DOLLENS: Well, thank you so much.

WOMAN: We really support you.

MICKEY DOLLENS: Mostly Democrats running in this very conservative state.

ANGELA CLARK LITTLE, Oklahoma Parents and Educators for Public Education: This is our list of candidates our group supports.

LISA STARK: Angela Little can take some credit for this swell of education candidates. A suburban single mom with twin fifth graders, upset over increased school testing, she started a Facebook group two years ago for parents and teachers to share ideas.

This year, she put out a call for candidates to challenge — quote — “anti-public education legislators.” The idea took off. So did the Facebook group. It now has 25,000 members.

ANGELA CLARK LITTLE: A lot of legislators feel like because they went to school, they are education experts. Well, I have been to a Thunder game, and I can’t play basketball. There’s a difference. You have to bring the subject matter experts to the table.

CLARK JOLLEY (R), Oklahoma State Senator: These people who are running to put more money in education, to do more for education, I think they are going to quickly find out, whoa, we have got other things we have to fund too.

LISA STARK: State Senator Clark Jolley has chaired the Senate Appropriations Committee for five years, and has seen Oklahoma’s economy nosedive, as gas prices plummeted. Mid-last year, lawmakers suddenly faced a $1.3 billion deficit. Even so, Jolley says education got more than it’s fair share.

CLARK JOLLEY: We actually are giving more money to education at the end of my tenure than we were at the beginning. The problem is that we have got…

LISA STARK: But not more money per student.

CLARK JOLLEY: We have got more students coming in than we have money coming in. And so, because of that, we’re seeing a decrease in the per-pupil expenditure, even though we’re putting tens of millions of more dollars in education every year.

LISA STARK: But what legislators didn’t do, voters are being asked to, on the ballot, a measure to raise the sales tax by 1 percent for education, including money to boost teacher salaries by $5,000 a year.

University President Boren is its chief backer.

DAVID BOREN: It’s not a perfect solution, but we can’t sit here and wait. Are we going to wait until we have 100,000 students in classroom with no teachers, qualified teachers? Are we going to go to three-day school weeks? How long are we going to wait before we go over Niagara Falls, so to speak, in a barrel?

LISA STARK: It’s clear some voters aren’t convinced. They see waste in the system, too many school districts, too many administrators.

MAN: And our teachers are complaining about not being paid enough? Well, where is all this money going to? Every year, we ask for more and more money for education.

LISA STARK: Regardless of what happens at the polls, educators feel that, by running in such large numbers, they have made a difference, that they have changed the conversation around education here in Oklahoma.

JUDY MULLEN HOPPER: Come help me. Just push it down. Can you do it with me? Put your hand right here.

LISA STARK: It’s a conversation these novice candidates hope will sink in with voters.

JUDY MULLEN HOPPER: OK, here we go. And…

LISA STARK: Reporting from Oklahoma, I’m Lisa Stark of Education Week, for the “PBS NewsHour.”

JUDY MULLEN HOPPER: And can you vote for me? Can you vote for me?

SHARE VIA TEXT