Oklahoma teacher Cyndi Ralston gave 30 years of her life to public education. When her state’s education crisis led to a teacher shortage, she even came out of retirement at a starting teacher’s salary to help make sure Oklahoma children got a good education.
So when teachers across the state decided to strike for more public education funding and better working conditions, she jumped right on board. She even journeyed to the state capital to personally lobby her state representative, Republican Kevin McDugle, to increase education funding.
But after meeting with McDugle, Ralston says the state representative just kept pivoting away from the issue of increased public education funding.
“We kept trying to ask him if he would support a bill that would bring in revenue,” Ralston said in an interview with Mic. “But he has learned his pivoting lesson well. I was standing next to him and asking the questions and he just kind of kept patting my arm. I’m like, ‘sir.’”
Ralston walked away from the meeting not expecting much support from McDugle. What she got instead was a blindside attack from an angry politician fed up with what he saw as a group of entitled public workers.
“They come into this House, they want to act this way?” McDugle said in a since-deleted video posted to his Facebook page the day after his meeting with Ralston. “I’m not voting for another stinking measure when they’re acting the way they’re acting. Our kids follow their example and this is the example they set?”
It was that attack that ultimately helped Ralston make the decision to run as a Democrat against McDugle for his seat in the state House.
“We’re teaching [Oklahoma kids] about free democracy, and how it works,” Ralston said, defending the example she and other teachers have set for their students.
“We’re teaching them about petitioning the government. We’re teaching them about peaceful protests. We’ve had so many students up there now that have met their legislator and spoken to them about their own classrooms and they’ve learned that the legislator works for you, and you can go in and talk to them and tell them the way that it affects you,” she said.
After a successful wildcat strike in West Virginia, teachers in red states across the country have walked out of their classrooms to demand better pay for teachers and support staff, as well as overall increased school funding.
Years of disinvestment in public education had resulted in Oklahoma teachers becoming some of the lowest-paid public educators in the country. On March 31, the state legislature approved a $6,100 annual pay raise for teachers in an effort to try and avoid the strike.
But teachers said that, while they welcomed the pay raise, they were not going to call off the strike until the legislature increased funding for Oklahoma’s crowded classrooms and derelict public schools. Now, 10 days in, the Oklahoma teachers strike is on track to be the longest of any of the recent strike actions across the country.
“Teachers — honestly school boards and superintendents — were asking for that raise because of how many teachers we’ve lost to other states because of salary,” Ralston said. “So it wasn’t just the teachers in the states that were asking for that. We want resources in our classroom! We want smaller classrooms... We know what those children need and that’s what we wanted. We’ve gone 10 years without a raise. We’re used to it.”
Before now, Ralston has never run for public office. But she didn’t fall into this new role accidentally. Before the teachers strike even began, Ralston’s son, Josh Martin, had decided to run for a seat in the Oklahoma state house as a Democrat. Ralston had been accompanying him to candidate trainings with the Tulsa County Democratic Party, and it was there that she was first approached about running for office.
“They really planted the seed,” Ralston said. “I absolutely haven’t thought about running, really, before. It’s like, I’m a second grade teacher. But after all of that and just seeing [the video] ... it was like, ‘Alright, I’m gonna step up and see if I can effect change from a different area.’”
McDugle did not immediately respond to request for comment from Mic.
And Ralston isn’t the only one. Jennifer Youngberg, a public school teacher in Haskell, Oklahoma, filed to run as a Democrat for the state house on Wednesday, also citing disappointment with her state’s lack of investment in public education.
This won’t be the first time that Oklahoma teachers have banded together to run for office. In 2016 a group of nearly 30 teachers ran for public office in the state, referring to themselves as the “teachers caucus.” Most of those candidates lost, in what turned out to be a good year for Oklahoma’s mostly Republican incumbents.
But since then, things have begun to change in the historically conservative state. In 2017, Oklahoma Democrats won four special elections in deep-red districts. The district Ralston is running in is considerably less conservative than those districts, and has only recently came under Republican control after the 2016 election. And as the teachers strikes continue through their second full week, momentum across the state is building around a movement to increase funding for public education.
Yet Ralston says that the teachers strike is not meant to be a partisan affair. She plans to run a campaign aimed at helping members of both parties understand the importance of funding public education.
“It’s not about politics for us, honestly,” Ralston told Mic. “It’s about getting that funding into the classroom for the kids, and what I’ve heard from a lot of teachers that have been up [at the state house] is that they did not realize that education was a partisan issue. And it should not be. It should definitely not be. None of our services provided by the state should be partisan.”