On August 29, 2018, Eric Levits, writing for the New York Times, declared that Oklahoma teachers had purged the State House of their enemies. He wasn’t wrong. The preceding night, in run-off elections across Oklahoma, conservative GOP legislators who had voted against tax increases as a way to fund teacher pay raises were defeated.
For the first time in Oklahoma history, educators came together in a force that couldn’t be reckoned with and followed through on their vow they had previously chanted during their walkout in April to “vote them out.” So far in the 2018 election cycle, the primary and run-off elections have shown hard evidence of this as three legislators were given the boot and then eight more, respectively.
Oklahoman Parents and Educators for Public Education, a Facebook group of activists and concerned citizens with more than 31,000 members, determines which candidate in each race is a friend of education and bestows upon them an apple award, whereas those they deem to be dangerous for public education receive a yellow warning sign.
If GOP legislators thought this ranking system was small potatoes, they found out the hard way that they were very wrong. Eleven candidates who were given the yellow warning sign lost their elections, but a whopping 21 apple candidates were victorious.
With the general elections just around the corner in November, the question becomes: what else could education achieve? What should we be watching for? There are undoubtedly other conservative members of the Legislature that will be on the chopping block in November, but these members are most likely first term legislators.
With the success rate of the June and August elections, educators and their supporters have every reason to believe that not only can they fight back against those they’ve identified as threats to their cause, but if they were to continue to mobilize they could harness this momentum to set their sights even higher. Educators, their affiliate trade union and citizen advocates had an agenda they wanted to see completed during the 2018 legislative session, yet were only successful in getting a few of these demands passed through the Legislature and signed by the Governor.
The most important detail to note was that the bills that were successful happened before the teacher walkout. After the walkout began, educators received nothing else they asked for. There is one reason and one reason alone for this: Speaker of the House Charles McCall.
It’s not out of the realm of possibility that educators set their sights on more than just winning elections. If you put yourself in their shoes, you can easily make a case for a hypothetical world in which they continue marching on. If they want to continue the work they started, they could work towards putting a real advocate in the Speaker’s chair as well as increased sway and dominion in the majority party’s leadership members.
During the teacher walkout, the Speaker of the House and his leadership team successfully squashed the desires of education and effectively maintained the status quo. As thousands of educators marched on the Capitol, stood in the rain waiting for hours at a time just to get inside, brought ripped up and outdated textbooks to show their legislators, told tearful stories and hoped every day the Legislature would dig deeper to scrimp and scrounge up more funding to repair broken chairs and keep the lights on, Speaker McCall achieved absolutely nothing. In fact, he actively worked against the desires of the masses.
Educators began to ask for the removal of the capital gains tax deduction, even conceding to exempt agriculture, which would have brought in roughly $20 million for education. Without the agriculture exemption, it would have brought in $120 million for education; yet educators were willing to settle for pennies in comparison. But continuously, for days and weeks on end as teachers packed the gallery, Speaker McCall lead his caucus out on the floor to unanimously vote down the procedural motion that would have allowed this to come to a vote. And he did it right in front of their eyes, even as they booed members on the floor and proclaimed they’d be back the next day.
Not only that, but the Speaker also continuously led his caucus in voting down attempts to give retired educators a cost-of-living adjustment (COLA), which could have been funded through the pension system and wouldn’t have cost the state a dime. He made it clear that even though the Oklahoma Education Association asked for a $10,000 teacher pay raise bill and a $5,000 pay raise for support staff, he wasn’t willing to budge past a $6,100 pay raise for teachers and a $1,000 pay raise for support staff.
Considering revenue projections were showing an upward trend in the economy and gross receipts to the treasury, Republican leadership knew unequivocally that there would be money to pay Oklahoma educators what they originally asked for, but the politicians refused to do so. Through the lens of these truths and the lens of an Oklahoma teacher, one could certainly see motivation for pressing onward and upward.
So, who then could educators put in the Speaker’s chair that would be a true ally?
Due to term limits, willful retirements, and election defeats, 34 Republican incumbents will not be returning to the House. If you also discount the current GOP leadership team including the Speaker, Floor Leader and Appropriations and Budget Chair since they have proven to be disloyal to education's real needs, that leaves limited options of members with seniority, experience in leadership positions and proven loyalty to education.
Representative Mike Sanders (R-Kingfisher), a respected House member with ten years of experience and proven credibility among the education crowd, is the first option. Sanders noticeably distanced himself from Speaker McCall’s office and is a champion for education.
Representative Terry O’Donnell (R-Tulsa), who has the same credentials of being well-respected House member with a proven record of supporting education, is the second option. O’Donnell has six years of experience in the House and similarly distanced himself from Speaker McCall in the last legislative session.
Finally, Representative Charles Ortega (R-Altus), a friend of education with 11 years of experience in the house, previously ran against Charles McCall for Speaker. It might be time for him to challenge McCall once more.
If the powerful education movement identifies one of these legislators, or perhaps even a freshman of their choosing, could it be possible for their House allies to overthrow the current Speaker, Charles McCall, and have enough votes to replace him with their choice?
The answer is yes.
As discussed above, 34 of the 72 Republican caucus members in the House are not returning. That means there will be 34 incoming freshman who did not vote for this Speaker. A Speaker election is won with 37 votes, or 50% + 1 of the Republican caucus.
It is rumored that Speaker McCall and his leadership team were behind attacks on several of their own Republican caucus members who didn’t line up and take their marching orders during this past session.
Why, then, would incoming freshmen have any reason to believe their allegiance would be well-placed in such a man? The few conservatives that held on to their seats, plus 34 incoming freshmen, plus those incumbents who didn’t vote for Charles McCall the first time around and would most likely vote for another candidate, would equal more than the 37 member threshold it would take to oust Speaker Charles McCall. It would take 37 votes in caucus and 51 votes on the floor, and considering the Democrats are most likely all too willing to get rid of someone who didn’t play ball with them – or honestly just because they want to make Republicans look bad – I’d say the votes are more than there.
Ultimately, educators know that there are options and that if they choose to pursue those options, they could have the ability to significantly alter the leadership structure inside the Oklahoma State House of Representatives and effect real change.