OKLAHOMA CITY – Inner-city high school English teacher Mickey Dollens was fed up with low pay and cuts to public education, so he decided to run for the state Legislature to fix the problem.
Then the 28-year-old from Oklahoma City became a casualty of those cuts and was laid off. He has since become a poster boy for a movement of teachers, parents and other supporters of public education trying to elect candidates who will resist cuts imposed by majority Republicans.
The group passed its first major hurdle with flying colors on Tuesday when candidates it backed knocked off two incumbent House Republicans and came close to beating a third, a rarity in Oklahoma politics. Only three GOP incumbents have lost to a primary challenger in the last 16 years.
“They’ve already cut some sports and extra-curriculars like a welding program,” said Dollens, who won his Democratic primary with more than 90 percent of the vote and now faces a Republican in November. “Then my principal brought me in and said we have to let you and 19 other teaches go.
“This is happening to teachers all over Oklahoma.”
Oklahoma ranked at or near the bottom among U.S. states and the District of Columbia for education spending in the 2013-2014 school year, at 48th in teacher pay and 49th in spending per student, according to the National Education Association, a teachers’ union.
Despite the funding gaps, Republican leaders in Oklahoma continued to push for more income tax cuts and corporate tax incentives, even as an oil market bust ravaged the economy and prompted widespread layoffs.
First, tens of thousands of teachers and parents thronged the Capitol for rallies in 2014 and 2015, urging Republican leaders to increase teacher pay, roll back the tax cuts and get rid of some of the state-imposed requirements on schools.
But nothing was done.
This year, some of them returned to the Capitol to file for political office, and the new candidates swelled the ranks of political hopefuls to an all-time high.
Oklahoma Parents and Educators for Public Education, a Facebook page launched by an elementary school teacher and a mom frustrated with the Legislature's lack of action, quickly grew to nearly 25,000 followers. The group gave candidates a forum and an opportunity to tap into a network of local volunteers. They endorsed Republicans and Democrats who opposed school vouchers for private schools and supported increased funding for schools, and targeted incumbents on the other side.
The group backed candidates in 59 races, in some cases more than one in a single race, identifying them as supportive of public schools. In those contests, 33 won nominations and at least eight others will be in runoffs.
While funding for public schools has been cut in other states, the political fallout in Oklahoma is particularly striking, said Jonah Edelman, co-founder and CEO of the group Stand for Children, a national education advocacy group.
“In Oklahoma, since 2008, on a percentage basis, there have been the largest cuts to education funding in the country,” Edelman said. “This year, Oklahoma may well serve as a bellwether for other states — when decision makers don't invest in education, there may be electoral consequences.”
Typically, Republican primary challenges in Oklahoma come from conservatives in a state where common GOP campaign themes are cutting government spending, pro-gun, anti-abortion, and anti-gay marriage.
This time, voter support for the message that public education is worth the money should serve as a wakeup call that Republicans could face problems in November, said Trebor Worthen, a former state legislator who is now a GOP political strategist.
“So many of my colleagues in the Republican Party think because it’s a presidential election that Republicans are just going to sail to victory in November like we have in recent years,” Worthen said. “The truth is Oklahomans are not happy with the direction of the state right now, and that blame will be placed on Republicans.”
No matter what happens in November, Republicans are almost certain to retain control of both the House and Senate, but Worthen and other strategists suggest that Democrats could eat into the GOP’s 71-30 advantage in the House and 39-9 edge in the state Senate.
Greg Gatewood, 50, an architect who cast a ballot Tuesday in Tulsa, said education needs to be a priority.
“We give away too many millions of dollars in tax credits to oil and gas companies,” said Gatewood. “I have nieces and nephews, and I want them to be educated, too.”