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Accidental activists

Teachers, parents, and students say walkout was only step one

About 1,000 teachers gathered inside the Oklahoma State Capitol on April 12, the tenth day of the teacher walkout, to organize a path forward.

Joseph Rushmore

When an army of angry parents, Harley-riding evangelicals, marching bands, moderates, and rural and suburban Trump voters surrounded the Oklahoma State Capitol (and stayed for nearly the first two weeks of April), no one knew exactly how their story would end. The cynic in me wants to focus on the final days of the protest, including its anticlimactic conclusion at a tepid press conference on April 12, which many teachers rage-watched on Facebook Live, or the ugly personal fight brewing inside the Oklahoma Education Association (OEA). But American political movements are bicameral (like our legislature)—they are composed of two parts—and I’ll focus there.

There are protesters, and there are activists. Both are essential, but lasting political change in Oklahoma will likely come only from the latter.

Morgan Brown’s Instagram handle begins with the military title “general.” Brown (@generalmorgana) is a short, freckled student teacher interning at Westmoore High School in Oklahoma City. She was one of those screaming faces outside the State Senate chambers last week.

“I was kind of thrust into the spotlight by accident, just like thousands of other teachers. I’m just another person in Oklahoma who really cares about education,” she said.

Brown became a vocal leader during the walkout, but the marching and chants quickly led to more direct action, like visiting representatives’ offices to try to make headway.

“We started to make vote counts of who was for or against funding bills, and we tried to help teachers target officials whose votes we thought we could swing,” Brown said.

Without even realizing it, Brown and many others became lobbyists. Lori Crawford, who has taught for 20 years, was also thrust into leadership during the walkout.

“On the first day, teachers showed up in force. We heard there were about 40,000 people onsite, which was great, but we were unfocused. We’re not used to being activists. We’re used to keeping things calm.”

For the next nine days Crawford and her colleagues worked the outside protest and helped keep focus on the legislative agenda on the fourth floor.

“We had someone sitting at the monitor listening to the senate at all times,” Crawford said. “If they’re going to vote down funding, then we know those legislators aren’t with us. Then we can move our activism to the ballot box … to push candidates that are fighting against them. There’s a teacher in Moore running for the Senate seat. It’s pretty clear she’s been motivated by frustration at what we’ve seen here.”

The Facebook video of Representative Kevin McDugle (R-District 12) expressing anger at the “way teachers behaved” at the walkout went viral, but it was just one of many slights that seem to have inspired an unprecedented wave of Oklahoma educators to run for office this year.

Laura Steele, who teaches eighth grade social studies at Jenks Middle School, is running for her district seat, House District 98. Steele became a teacher during the middle of Oklahoma’s last major funding crisis. That was in 1995, when the education funding ran out from House Bill 1017 and most public schools stopped hiring.

“It’s crazy how little seems to have changed,” Steele said. “When the person you’re electing is more concerned with party politics than the will of the people, then it’s the duty of people to take that power back into their own hands.”

Many teachers in Oklahoma felt betrayed by their legislators this year. According to an April 14 report by the Oklahoma Policy Institute, the state has cut $250 million from common education in the last decade, and recent legislative action has restored only about 20 percent of those cuts. On April 13, as thousands marched on the Oklahoma State Capitol, the legislature spent the morning voting for a measure that declares the Christian rock ballad “I Can Only Imagine” the official state inspirational song. It’s behavior like this that has riled activists like Crawford, Steele, and Amy Vargus. Vargus leads the Jenks Parent Legislative Action Committee, an advocacy group that helps parents understand which bills are positive for public education.

“We need [legislators] to at least discuss the bills,” Vargus said. “They’ve tabled every revenue bill to prevent [them] from coming to floor this week. They won’t even debate the bills. I was a high school French teacher, and as teachers we get really good at managing whatever’s thrown at us and coping and evolving and figuring it out. I got really tired of figuring it out. When my son was in the neonatal intensive care unit I had to advocate for him a lot. That’s when I found my voice. It was required, because there were multiple times when my son was in danger of dying. Later I started seeing what was happening in education and the agency cuts, and I just found my voice and wanted to help.”

Vargus made it clear the fight is far from over.

“I feel like legislators are starting to understand that this is going to be part of a continuing process and that we’re not going to leave.”

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