OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — A teacher walkout in Oklahoma entered its third day Wednesday in a red state rebellion stretching from West Virginia to Arizona that is putting Republican lawmakers on the spot politically.
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. But now that’s 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.
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 Monday to protest cuts in pensions. And in Arizona, restive teachers demonstrated again Wednesday, wearing red while walking around Phoenix-area high schools and 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.
“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 voted for the tax increases and has gotten an earful from conservatives. “I’d rather serve one term and know I did what was best for my district.”
Some Republicans are expressing support for 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.”
As he runs for a second term, Republican Gov. Doug Ducey in Arizona epitomizes the dilemma for GOP candidates in 2018. He refuses to raise taxes and finds himself on the defensive amid growing frustration with education funding in a state where the budget was decimated during the recession and where he and other leaders have dramatically expanded voucher programs. Teachers have been filling the Capitol to protest a Ducey plan to provide a 2 percent raise for teachers, and they have been joined by the two Democrats trying to unseat him.
The protests also have emboldened teachers across the country to run for office. About two dozen educators or former educators are running for office this year in Kentucky, 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.”
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. 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.”