Education Week and PBS Explain Why More than Forty Teachers are Running for Office in Oklahoma

Every Oklahoman should watch "an awesome video" produced by Education Week's Lisa Stark and aired on PBS NewsHour about teachers running for office and parents leading the battle to rebuild our state's schools. They should also read Daarel Burnette's coverage of the grassroots uprising in Education Week. Edweek and PBS report:

After ousting the state's superintendent in a 2014 primary, the loosely organized group of educators from around the state successfully campaigned to scrap the state's teacher-evaluation system that was tied to students' test scores. They notched another victory when they lobbied to defeat a bill backed by Republican Gov. Mary Fallin that would've expanded the use of vouchers. ... So last spring, when someone suggested to their Facebook group that they start legislating themselves, more than 40 teachers filed to run for the state legislature.

The report features Oklahoma Teacher of the Year Shawn Sheehan who is running for office in Norman because the state has fallen so far that we "don't have anything to lose." Another high-profile candidate is Mickey Dollens, who previously had been a college football player, an Olympic bobsledder, and an oilfield roughneck, who was laid off after his first year teaching at Grant High School in Oklahoma City. Edweek and PBS also report on Judy Mullen Hopper, a veteran special education teacher who abruptly retired "out of frustration with new teacher evaluations and testing requirements for students with disabilities."

Mid-Del Superintendent Rick Cobb says, "The frustration from parents, students and teachers just reached a critical mass." EdWeek reports that the political tipping point was crossed after "an electrifying rally in 2014, when more than 25,000 educators, decked out in red, converged on the steps of the state capitol in Oklahoma City to protest cuts to education." But, the legislature kept on cutting per student funding. Now, a tipping point has been crossed in all types of classrooms across the state.

One hero of the Education Week/PBS report is Angela Little, a parent of twins who lives in Edmond. Fed up with Common Core standards and high stakes testing, Little started a Facebook group, Oklahoma Parents and Educators for Public Education, to "bring awareness to the truths of the current education reform being forced upon districts, throughout Oklahoma, from state and federal officials." It now has more than 24,000 members.

In addition to killing Common Core, defeating voucher legislation, and scrapping the test-driven teacher evaluation law that had been foisted on Oklahoma, the grassroots uprising of parents and teachers led the fight against the corporate school reform's Chief for Change Janet Baressi. A moderate Republican, Joy Hofmeister, was elected State Superintendent of Public Schools. Consequently, "Many teachers now see an opportune moment as the new federal K-12 law--the Every Student Succeeds Act--shifts much of the education policymaking authority to states." I would add that Superintendent Hofmeister has shown the leadership necessary to use the ESSA to free Oklahoma schools from the test, sort, reward, and punish school of reform.

Edweek and PBS also explain how true believers in test-driven, competition-driven reform are not going quietly. Edweek reports that, "Some of their [the teacher candidates'] opponents are sharing a $100,000 contribution from the American Federation for Children, a supporter of school choice, to help pay for blistering attack ads against them, framing the teachers as political novices looking for a bigger paycheck." Moreover, "the editorial board for The Daily Oklahoman wrote that the organizers of the Facebook group embody 'the worst stereotypes of fringe activists, including mudslinging and worse. ... In a nutshell, the online communities of supposedly 'pro-education' activists are marked by self-contradictions, inconsistency, infighting, apparent dishonesty, and more.'"

Edweek and PBS also listened to the evidence-based analyses of the Oklahoma Policy Institute. PBS quoted the think tank's Gene Perry and Edweek cited executive director David Blatt who says, "What we've seen is a strong bipartisan movement in favor in public education. And the voices have been heard by legislators."

And that gets us back to one of the biggest reasons why the combination of expensive test-driven, competition-driven reforms and budget-cutting created such a mess. As Angela Little says, she has attended Thunder games, but that does not qualify her to be an NBA basketball player. Noneducators have repeatedly imposed risky and unfunded mandates on schools. We've reached the point, as University of Oklahoma President David Boren says, where our schools are about to go over Niagara Falls.

But, if we Oklahomans can reclaim our schools, it can happen anywhere. We're a state that proclaims, "Thank God for Mississippi," the place which keeps us from being last is so many areas. If we elect many or most of these teachers to office, how many other states will turn our words on their head? "Thank God for Oklahoma!" could become a national, un-ironic battle cry.