When Kelly Albright went to protest cuts to education funding at Oklahoma’s state Capitol this spring, she was ready to stay for months.
However, a decision from Oklahoma’s largest teacher union sent her home after only 10 days, not empty-handed — teachers received a pay raise of $6,000 each — but still frustrated, since the raise was thousands less than teachers had originally demanded.
Now Albright, a third grade teacher at Dove Science Academy in Oklahoma City, has decided she wants to go back to the state Capitol, but she wants to be sent there by the voters of Oklahoma State House District 95.
“When the walkouts ended I thought, man, I was ready to stay there until November,” Albright said. “But I feel like we did have a big success in that we woke this state up. I mean, people didn’t seem to be aware of the behavior of our legislators.”
Albright is one of nearly 100 Oklahoma teachers who filed to run for office in Oklahoma during the 2018 midterm elections following the largest teacher protest in the state’s history.
From April 2 to April 12, nearly 50,000 teachers left the classroom and headed for Oklahoma City to protest declining and inadequate state funding for public education. After 10 days, with $6,000 of the $10,000 pay raise the Oklahoma Education Association originally asked for, the union called for an end to the protest and for teachers to take the fight to the ballots in November.
The record numbers of individuals filing to run for office during the walkout put the Oklahoma teacher walkout as one of the most significant political events in recent statewide history. And during the summer primaries as candidates won and lost, Oklahomans waited to see what the lasting political effects would be.
That movement, which once crashed like waves upon the steps of Oklahoma’s state Capitol, has now spread into an ocean touching every part of the state. Teachers who left Oklahoma City unfulfilled last spring had one thing in mind: remember in November.
The story of this political movement began with citizens who had problems and want to effect change. And where there are public schools in Oklahoma, there are problems that need to be addressed.
‘I still don’t have funding for my classroom’
Every year, Becki Maldonado, a candidate for state Senate and a teacher in the Oklahoma City public school district, filled her classroom with books bought from her own personal money.
“My first year teaching, my school lost eight teaching positions just like that,” Maldonado said. “You have your fantasies of the teaching world and you think everything would be beautiful. And you know, I don't know, I've watched too many Disney movies, obviously.”
Maldonado said she filed during the teacher walkout because she personally wanted to institute change in the Capitol building when it came to public education.
Maldonado studied English in college but found herself teaching math because of a shortage of teachers at the first school she taught at. Emergency certification in subjects teachers aren’t accustomed to teaching is just one of the problems Maldonado sees in public education.
Albright said her students and fellow teachers struggled with class sizes that were simply too big.
“I have 27 (students) in this tiny little closet of a room. Does that make it difficult? It really does,” Albright said. “We've got outdated textbooks. Other schools don't have enough desks, don't have enough chairs. It's just, it's reached a breaking point.”
For Albright, that breaking point was the lack of appropriate pay after teaching five days a week and working a second job as a waitress on weekends to make ends meet.
Maldonado, a mother of two boys, was hoping for a larger raise than the $6,000 pay increase than the Oklahoma Legislature passed during the walkout.
“I still don’t have funding for my classroom,” Maldonado said. “I know a lot of people who felt that way after the walkouts.”
‘We had momentum going’
For the teachers, the walkouts were as frustrating as they were energizing.
With 50,000 of Oklahoma’s teachers gathered in the state Capitol for 10 straight days, 66-year-old former English language and debate teacher Mary Brannon didn’t miss a day of it.
“I was so proud of the school systems that would let their teachers out to come,” Brannon said. “I was up there every day.”
Brannon is running for the U.S. Congress against an eight-term incumbent. But like Albright and Maldonado, she, too, said she is tired of business-as-usual policies and sees the political environment as ripe for change.
The seeds of that change were planted in April, but many teachers felt betrayed by the Oklahoma Education Association for ending the protest before the government acquiesced to the teacher’s full demands.
“When you’re doing negotiations, there's always that stalemate moment of who is going to flinch first,” Maldonado said. “And we flinched first — we gave up, we gave in. I think that there was a lot more that we could have done.”
When teachers felt disappointed by the result of the walkouts, they began to turn to the approaching elections, and many of the teachers who had protested decided to run. For Albright, this was the real victory of the protest.
“After the walkout, we had momentum going. I think that was one of the big wins of the walkout, even though we didn’t earn any new funding throughout those 10 days,” Albright said. “And honestly, I think we’re seeing that with the number of teachers who filed to run.”
‘Remember in November’
For those who filed, the newfound political engagement in the education community is a promise for Oklahoma politics to shift toward greater awareness for public education.
Maldonado said she wants to help fix public schools because she sees supporting education as the foundation for solving other statewide problems.
“As teacher advocates, I believe that not only do we need to be pushing the education agenda, but we also have to be a part of these other agendas and fixing these other systematic problems because they affect our students outside the classroom,” Maldonado said. “And as any teacher will tell you, you know, they bring the problems into the classroom with them.”
Brannon, Maldonado and Albright each shared the sentiment that Oklahoma’s government gives tax breaks for the wealthy while not finding funding for public education. A report from The Oklahomanfound capital gains tax exemptions cost Oklahoma $467 million over the five years leading up to 2017.
Albright said that would be one of the first things she wants to change.
“We gave a lot of tax breaks, majority to the wealthiest Oklahomans and to corporations,” Albright said. “Right now, we have kind of a flipped, backwards income tax system. I'd like to see a more progressive income tax system, which would generate a lot more revenue, as well.”
Of all the issues the teachers want to fix about public education, Maldonado, Albright and Brannon acknowledge that it will take some a lot of work. Brannon said even if she loses her race, she’ll run again to champion the issues she cares about.
Maldonado said she believes the future looks bright for Oklahoma, even if the change won’t come as a result of this wave of teachers running for office.
“We have to keep speaking out for ourselves because even if we get all the teachers in there, education was not destroyed in one legislative session,” Maldonado said. “It is not going to be rebuilt in one legislative session.”