Educators face challenges on 2018 campaign trail

RonnY Johns

OKLAHOMA CITY — Ronny Johns said he’s embarrassed when parents call asking why their child can’t take a textbook home to study.

The Ada Junior High School principal has to explain that teachers receive classroom sets, so there aren’t enough books to send home in some subjects.

“We have textbooks that are older than the kids we have in our school building,” he said.

His school, meanwhile, is down 13 positions because there’s not enough money to rehire people.

Johns, who turns 56 on Monday, said his local community is supporting its schools. In February, voters approved a bond package to buy buses, textbooks and technology upgrades.

But he’s grown increasingly frustrated that the state Legislature continues to shortchange public education.

“To me it’s just sad that you have to pass a bond issue to buy textbooks,” Johns said.

So, he’s filed to run as a Republican for his district’s state House seat in hopes of securing sustainable revenue for public education and other underfunded state agencies.

“I want to be a voice for education in our Legislature,” Johns said.

The June 26 primary legislative ballot is filled with candidates like Johns — current and former educators who believe lawmakers continue to underfund public education. Candidates are angry about inadequate school funding, soaring class sizes and aging textbooks.

“It’s more than have run in the past, but it just goes to show teachers really want to make things better, and they’re willing to stick their neck out and run for office because they believe in helping Oklahomans,” said Alicia Priest, president of the Oklahoma Education Association.

In all, an estimated 98 current educators are seeking state House or Senate seats, according to an analysis conducted by Alberto Morejon, a Stillwater Junior High School eighth-grade history teacher who administers an Oklahoma educator Facebook group, which has more than 78,500 members.

Johns is facing Shawn Howard, 51, of Ada, in the June 26 primary. Howard couldn’t be reached for comment. The two are vying for the seat currently held by state Rep. Todd Thomsen, R-Ada, who is ineligible to run again due to term limits.

Morejon said many educators decided to run after attending the nine-day teacher walkout in April. He said many felt disrespected by current legislators.

“I think there’s a huge distrust,” he said. “Not only is there a huge distrust, teachers know what it is like in the classroom.”

But Morejon said some teachers are finding campaigning challenging.

“It’s definitely tough because almost all of these teachers are getting outspent 10-to-1, 50-to-1 because they’re not getting big donations from oil and gas companies or these huge corporations,” he said.

State Rep. Jacob Rosecrants, D-Norman, said he hopes many of the educators win.

“(It) would be so cool to have a legit teacher caucus,” he said.

However, he’s concerned that many educators first decided to run during the walkout.

The former teacher said when he first ran in 2016, he needed—and had—a long-term strategy.

He expected—and did—lose to the popular Republican incumbent. Rosecrants said he wanted to make a respectable showing at the polls and gain some name recognition.

When the incumbent later resigned to pursue another opportunity, Rosecrants won the special election, becoming the first Democrat since the 1990s to win the district.

Rosecrants, who doesn’t have a primary opponent, spends his time knocking on doors to meet constituents. Social issues used to dominate those conversations, but now residents are concerned with three things — education, teacher pay and fixing state budget issues, he said.

“Is there a chance some of these teachers can pull an upset? Yes, indeed there is, because of the political environment right now,” he said.

Trent England, executive vice president of the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, a conservative-leaning think tank, said it is hard to unseat incumbents even when they’re not popular.

But in the current political climate, teachers may have a small advantage.

“If the political debate is going to focus on education, teachers are able to focus on a position of authority because they’ve been there,” he said.

But teachers may lose some public sympathy as November nears because they’ll have to take positions on things like taxes, turnpike expansions and prisons, just like everyone else, he said.

“Everybody is an outsider the first time they file to run for office, but by the time election day rolls around, they’re insiders just like everybody else,” he said. “They’ll be held to the same standards on Second Amendment issues and abortion issues whether they’re a teacher candidate or any other candidate.”

And, England said teacher candidates appear to have “really, really divergent views.”

“Even if we elected a Legislature full of teachers, we would have disagreements over teacher pay, class size, testing and tax rates,” he said. “Teachers are a diverse group of people, oftentimes with plenty (of) strong opinions.”

Janelle Stecklein covers the Oklahoma Statehouse for CNHI’s newspapers and websites. Reach her at jstecklein@cnhi.com.