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The Teacher Walkouts Moved These Educators To Run. Now, They're Facing Off

Republican Sherrie Conley (left) and Democrat Steve Jarman are competing to represent the same district in Oklahoma's House of Representatives. Both have more than a decade of teaching experience.
Nick Oxford for NPR
Republican Sherrie Conley (left) and Democrat Steve Jarman are competing to represent the same district in Oklahoma's House of Representatives. Both have more than a decade of teaching experience.

Oklahoma educators Sherrie Conley and Steve Jarman each remember the exact moment they decided to run for office.

It was April 2, the first day of that state's teacher walkout, and thousands of educators had swarmed the Capitol in Oklahoma City, demanding more school funding and higher wages.

That same day, a state representative told a local TV reporter what he thought of the walkout. "They [the teachers] were hired to teach," he said. "They need to be in the classroom."

"Right then I knew I was going to have to run," Jarman says.

Conley felt the same way. They both put their names in for that lawmaker's seat.

In Oklahoma, nearly 100current and former teachers and school administrators ran for state legislature on the primary ballot. About half are still in their races.

Conley says teachers are tired of being left out of lawmakers' decisions, especially when it comes to schools. She believes teachers need to be more involved in the legislative process.

"Who better to go up and try to help the legislature, fix education, and what's going on in the schools and the classrooms, than somebody who's already been there," she says.

That message resonated with voters: In the primary, Conley beat the incumbent lawmaker who told teachers to get back in the classroom.

Now, she and Jarman will face each other on Tuesday.

Both say, if elected, they'll fight for increased school funding and they'll be strong advocates for public education. But there are major differences between them.

Conley is a Republican and taught mostly math and social studies for 15 years. She's now an administrator in Oklahoma City Public Schools.

Jarman is a Democrat. He taught math and English for 31 years in Pauls Valley Public Schools, about an hour outside Oklahoma City. He retired about a decade ago.

Jarman promotes his experience as a leader in the local teachers union. He says he's spent years fighting for better teacher pay and working conditions in the district, and that makes him the more qualified candidate.

"I've got experience in negotiations. I know it from a teacher's standpoint," he says. "I've been involved in a lot of heated discussions, and heated issues. I don't wilt away from them."

But he's worked in the same district his whole career and Conley sees that as a mark against him.

"I've had the opportunity to teach in inner-city schools. I have taught in a rural school. I've taught in a suburban [school] with high mental illness," she says. "Steve doesn't have that."

Possibly the biggest difference between the two is where they plan to get the money to increase school funding.

Oklahoma lawmakers have cut taxes multiple times over the past decade. That contributed to a plunge in education funding levels, which are nowamong the lowest in the nation.

Jarman says there's no question lawmakers need to restore that funding. "It's very simple: You can't continue cutting taxes and expect to keep funding core services."

Conley does not support raising taxes. Instead, she promotes auditing state agencies for waste, and putting some of that money toward schools. In the next legislative session, state lawmakers will also have abouta billion dollars more in revenue than they did last year, due in part to a healthier oil and gas economy.

"I'm looking forward to hopefully having a say in where some of that funding goes," she says.

Both fight the notion that teachers are one-issue candidates, and say they also have major concerns outside of education. Conley is focused on improving the criminal justice system; Jarman is especially worried about health care.

Jarman says he regularly tells people, "There's a lot of other problems" in Oklahoma, and education is just the tip of the iceberg.

But at this point, education has trickled into nearly every Oklahoma midterm election — even state treasurers are arguing over who supports public education more. What that support will actually look like remains to be seen.

Copyright 2018 KOSU

In graduate school at the University of Montana, Emily Wendler focused on Environmental Science and Natural Resource reporting with an emphasis on agriculture. About halfway through her Master’s program a professor introduced her to radio and she fell in love. She has since reported for KBGA, the University of Montana’s college radio station and Montana’s PBS Newsbrief. She was a finalist in a national in-depth radio reporting competition for an investigatory piece she produced on campus rape. She also produced in-depth reports on wind energy and local food for Montana Public Radio. She is very excited to be working in Oklahoma City, and you can hear her work on all things from education to agriculture right here on KOSU.