Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Class in Session?

The latest development in the ongoing educational funding crisis facing our fair state is a slew of educators filing for seats in the state legislature. News stories have highlighted a "teacher caucus" of folks signing up to run, most with the idea of using the authority of the state legislature to bring about changes in our public education system.

A couple of months ago I noted one of the sillier responses to this serious problem, the meme snarking on the relative rankings of how much teachers and legislators in Oklahoma are paid compared to other states. I offered my own superficial tuppence on the problem, which I said probably wasn't going to be solved by most of the solutions that involve dumping a big bucket of money into a flawed and outdated system. I was also clear that I am the Mondayest of Monday morning quarterbacks, not having followed these policy debates very closely for many years and lacking any plan of my own. So on the one hand, kudos to those folks who decided that they'd solve little from the sidelines.

The lists I've seen don't make this "caucus" as solid as the headlines do. Some are listed as "public education advocate," which is a pretty nebulous term that a lot of people would apply to themselves whether educators agreed with them or not. Others are "public school parents," which includes a whole lot of currently serving legislators who are seen as the cause of the problem. Some are retired educators, some are school board members and some are currently working teachers. They'll have to contend with the view that they're running for office to vote themselves a pay raise -- a statement that's probably unfair but will get made plenty of times anyway and believed enough to cause them problems.

But on the other hand, it's unlikely that this slate of filers will make it intact into the legislature, and those who do will find their plans obstructed by some of the same realities that hamstring current legislators who try to change the system.

The story at the Tulsa World lists several of the filers but doesn't note their party affiliation. Some will run as Democrats, some as Republicans and some as independents.The independents are almost guaranteed to be toast. Without a party structure to connect to, they will have to find and raise their own resources in their races. The natural source of funds, volunteers and so on would be educators' associations and teachers' unions -- in Oklahoma, the Oklahoma Educator's Association or OEA. Unfortunately for those people, if they are running in a race with a Democratic candidate they will find the OEA is already likely to have committed their support to that person. The association and state Democratic party have a long relationship and OEA leaders would have to see a very weak Democratic candidate, a very strong independent candidate, a combination of the two or some other set of unlikely circumstances to risk that bond. Such instances will be rare if they exist.

Many will file as Democrats. Public school educators remain one of the strongest blocs of support for the state party, but it has been in disarray for many years. Dozens of Republican legislators gained their seats without Democratic opposition when their races drew not even token opposition. GOP State Rep. Sally Kern has been one of the Democratic party's least-liked legislators for years, but in the 2014 elections no Democrat filed against her. This new potential caucus may have significant educational connections and credibility, but in the eyes of many people who vote a straight party ticket, they will be Democrats before they are anything else. The likelihood of the national Democratic ticket being led by someone extremely unpopular among Oklahomans will not help the local candidates' causes.

Some candidates will file as Republicans. GOP leadership of the state legislature has led many people to lay the blame for the current problems at its door and rank-and-file party members who think smarter choices could definitely have fixed this problem aren't shy about their opinions. Republicans who file against incumbent Republicans while lambasting the party leadership will find little help coming their way. If they win primary elections they might get some more support in general elections, but they will take back seats to candidates who are less vocal in their disapproval.

Plus, the educators' associations and groups still lean towards Democrats. They were able to push challenger Joy Hofmeister over incumbent Janet Barresi in the 2014 GOP primary race for state superintendent, but that was a statewide post and Barresi was uniquely hated. The full-throated roar backing Hofmeister in the primary was much more muted come November. Either way the winners will find that getting elected was the easy job.

They will still have to contend with the absence of money. They will still have to work around the restrictions on state tax increases which require either a 75% supermajority of legislative approval or approval on a statewide ballot. They will have to contend with a less-than-stellar executive who may not be interested in helping them -- and almost certainly isn't likely to be all that helpful even if she is. They will discover they are not the only state agency that doesn't want to be cut and can make a good case to the voters that they shouldn't be. They may have to make compromises in order to get some of what they want and have to settle for not getting all of it.

They'll probably find out that making laws may be a lot like making sausage in that no one wants to watch it happening, but also in that being the ones who make it happen isn't all roses and daffodils either. Which may be a pretty useful lesson.

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