Sixteen months ago, Cyndi Ralston was retiring after 30 years on the job as an elementary school teacher. Now, she finds herself working two full-time jobs, back in the classroom and running for the Oklahoma State House. The campaign meant that she had no summer break, having instead spent her time “off” knocking on doors, holding events, and rallying her neighbors to take the final steps toward toppling the far-right regime that had thrown the entire state’s education system and infrastructure into disrepair.
“It’s kind of crazy the way it’s all falling into place — this was never in my life plans,” Ralston, who is running to represent District 12, told me last week. “My poor husband is already like, well, I guess I’ll see you on the weekends, dear. I mean, he’s already gotten used to it. I’m never home. But someone had to do it.”
When I spoke with Ralston last April, she was driving home from Oklahoma City, where she had spent yet another day helping lead a teacher walkout over the tattered conditions of the state’s beleaguered, underfunded public schools. Her retirement had been short-lived; she jumped back in the classroom just months after announcing her departure, mostly because no one else would do it. By the spring, she was leading a brave teacher walkout in an effort to save public education.
Over the prior decade, Oklahoma gave billions of dollars in tax cuts to millionaires and fracking and oil companies despite severe budget shortfalls, robbing public education budgets to do it. Between 2008 and 2015, public education was slashed over 23%; photos of shredded textbooks went viral last spring as the nation finally took notice of the damage. In tense budget negotiations, a majority of Republican lawmakers agreed to increase taxes on gas production slightly (though still far below pre-2008 rates) to give teachers a $6000 pay increase.
Not all Republican lawmakers supported even that small pittance, and an increased education budget was dead on arrival, leading the teachers to walk out.
The strike led to a slight education budget increase, but nothing close to adequate. So teachers, generally apolitical in Oklahoma, decided to take matters into their own hands, running for office to unseat the Republicans that voted against raises and education funding. Oklahomans, while generally conservative, supported the strike by a wide margin. And they proved it in primary elections this summer, as a dozen of the GOP legislators that voted against teacher raises were ousted by more moderate Republicans who publicly supported them and were not as beholden to extremist special interests.
“Oklahoma’s waking up and not as strongly red as we were,” Ralston, a longtime Democrat, says. “And as fast as they put us on that map for President Trump, we’ve got people that didn’t vote but have said no, we have to vote — it didn’t turn out well when we just stayed out of it.”
Ralston’s opponent, Kevin McDugle, was famously outspoken against teachers, and when he published a Facebook note ripping them for taking action, Ralston officially announced her campaign. McDugle won his primary by three votes, a squeaker that Ralston says he would have last had McDugle’s opponent not literally withdrawn from the race. There are ten anti-raise legislators left; eight have teachers running against them. Ralston is working to finish the job of ousting McDugle, and at times, she finds herself having to battle a bad conservative-fueled narrative about why teachers go on strike.
“I’ll have people that will say, ‘I don’t think teachers should have walked out and gotten a raise,’ so it’s been good to talk to people one-on-one. I’ll tell them that the teachers did not ask for the raise. The school superintendents were the ones that were asking for the raise because they can’t find new teachers to hire,” Ralston says. “I say the teachers were going for resources in our classroom so that we could get textbooks and technology to teach children. Teachers walked because they didn’t give that to us.’ They say, OK, I didn’t know that, and I can accept that.”
And it’s evident to everyone, even those not all that keen on the strike, that the crisis is far from over. Oklahoma issued more emergency teacher certifications this year — over 2100 — than any time in the state’s history. And very, very modest increases in education funding cannot patch over giant craters left by years of bombs dropped by Republicans owned by rich oil interests.
“I actually got math textbooks. I still don’t have enough. It’s lovely to have an actual set of books and have actual manipulatives to use in class — oh my gosh, it felt like Christmas, we got something we haven’t gotten in ten years,” Ralston says, laughing with only a hint of irony. “But it’s not enough. We’ve got a class set and we’ve got three classes. I have had to make copies and the kids have to copy things down. They were talking about replacing English books, but I don’t know where they ended up. I think they were going to look and see which were are the oldest, to try to get a set of those books replaced. So it didn’t end up very much at all.”
Still, it’s a start, and Ralston has seen the power that teachers have in the state.Between education, looming Medicaid work requirements — Ralston is vehemently opposed — and redistricting at play, teachers and parents are motivated as never before. Her message is simple if a bit sarcastic — typical for a whip-smart, funny teacher who has spent over 30 years around second graders: “Why don’t you stop giving oil and gas companies tax breaks and let people hold on to what little you’re giving them?”
With an open gubernatorial election that could flip to Democrats due to the collective hatred for outgoing Gov. Mary Fallin, progressive Democrats have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to turn Oklahoma blue (or at least very purple) once again.