OKLAHOMA CITY – A teacher rebellion in red states from West Virginia to Arizona has put Republicans on the defensive, forcing them to walk a fine line in the months before midterm elections between placating constituents who are angry over education cuts and conservative supporters who want a smaller government and low taxes.
In Oklahoma, most Republicans last week broke with the party orthodoxy and endorsed hundreds of millions of dollars in tax increases to fund public schools and give teachers a raise of 15 to 18 percent.
They acted after Oklahoma teachers demanded action, inspired by a nine-day strike in West Virginia, where they won a 5 percent raise. The rebellion also has spread to Kentucky as teachers thronged the state Capitol on Monday to protest cuts in pensions. And in Arizona, restive teachers also are demonstrating, demanding a 20 percent pay raise.
But the epicenter of the revolt now is Oklahoma where lawmakers won little praise for approving major tax increases and instead caught flak from both sides of the political divide. Thousands of teachers converged on the state Capitol for a second day Tuesday demanding even more money, while anti-tax conservatives vowed to challenge incumbents who supported the plan.
“I’ve had some political blowback, people saying this will be my last term in office,” said Rep. Kyle Hilbert, a Republican from rural northeast Oklahoma, who has gotten an earful from conservatives. “I’d rather serve one term and know I did what was best for my district.”
The Oklahoma strike showed no signs of ending with many of the largest school districts in the state planning to close for a third consecutive day to honor the walkout.
Some Republicans are trying to jump on the bandwagon of the teacher rebellion. Three weeks before a closely-watched special election for an open congressional seat in Arizona, Republican hopeful Debbie Lesko is running a TV ad that shows her reading a book to children as she vows to “fix our schools and give our teachers the raise they deserve.”
The protests also have emboldened teachers across the country to run for office. In Kentucky, teachers bruised by their fight over education pensions are preparing to mobilize to support legislative candidates they see as passing a key test: support for education. About two dozen educators or former educators are running for office this year, most of them as Democrats.
For the Democratic party, which has been losing legislative seats in many of these red states for years, the intensity of the education movement is an opportunity. The Oklahoma Democratic Party set up a tent outside the Capitol during the teacher protests and urged demonstrators to register to vote.
“I think the people who will be held responsible at the end of the day are the people in power,” said Party Chairwoman Anna Langthorn. “I think we have a lot of momentum.”
Xavier Turner, 17, the student body president at Del City High School in suburban Oklahoma City, held a sign at the protest Wednesday saying: “I’d take KD back before Mary Fallin,” a reference to NBA superstar Kevin Durant, who left the Oklahoma City Thunder for the Golden State Warriors. He’s not quite old enough to vote, but Turner said that as young people register, they will remember who stood with their teachers.
“We just need to do better as far as the Legislature and who we vote in,” Turner said Tuesday after joining the protest outside the Oklahoma Capitol. “The national spotlight is on Oklahoma. Hopefully it goes well.”
Democrats already have made some gains in Oklahoma, winning four seats from Republicans in special elections in the past year, including two teachers elected to office after campaigning on improving school funding. But they are still deep in the minority in the Legislature.
Recent U.S. history is mixed on whether such grassroots movements can translate into victories at the ballot box. Teachers were at the heart of massive protests at the Wisconsin state Capitol in 2011, fighting a proposal from then-newly elected Republican Gov. Scott Walker. Despite the closure of schools for four days as part of a coordinated sick-out among teachers, the bill that placed severe restrictions on unions passed anyway. An attempted recall of Walker in 2012 led to an even wider margin of victory than he enjoyed in the regular election in 2010.
Kansas is a more encouraging example for teachers. After Republicans there approved massive personal income tax cuts beginning in 2012, budget shortfalls put a lid on education funding increases. A backlash against the GOP in 2016 led to the defeat of more than two dozen conservative state lawmakers, and the Legislature last year reversed many of the tax cuts.
Pat McFerron, a Republican strategist and pollster in Oklahoma, said for many GOP incumbents who voted for the tax-hike plan to fund teacher pay raises, their greatest concern is a right-wing primary challenge. Former U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn, a hero of the anti-tax movement, urged citizens to challenge their Republican legislators who voted for the plan.
But Carri Hicks, a fourth-grade math and science teacher in the Oklahoma City suburb of Deer Creek, said she decided to run as a Democrat for a state Senate seat this year in part because of the declines in funding for public schools.
“I want to be a voice for the teachers at the state Capitol,” Hicks said, saying the raise for teachers and more money for education was a good first step. “My campaign continues to finish the job.”