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Looking For Change, Teachers Hit The Campaign Trail

Lilli Carré for NPR

You can normally find Shawn Sheehan teaching math and special education in Norman, Oklahoma, just south of Oklahoma City. But school's out for the summer and instead, he's knocking on doors.

One-by-one he's asking voters in the state's central Senate District 15 to cast their vote for him. He's running unopposed in today's primary as an Independent, and after the polls close he'll know his Republican opponent.

Sheehan, 30, isn't going at this alone. Nearly 40 other educators, a record number, are on today's primary ballots in the state. Many of the teachers and principals running say they're fed up with state politics after constantly rallying for more funding, and fighting off policies they say don't work well in the classroom.

A majority of the candidates are Democrat, but there are also Republicans and Independents like Sheehan, who says he really doesn't want to leave his classroom. He's Oklahoma's 2016 Teacher of the Year, and says he's running for state Senate because someone has got to fight for students and for schools, suggesting the incumbents just aren't getting it done.

"It makes for a great talking point, but thus far their actions have not backed up that talk. They like to say 'Oh my mother was a teacher. My uncle was a teacher,' and then they make decisions that are very harmful to our schools and consequently our students."

If he gets elected, Sheehan says his first priority is funding education and raising teacher pay, which is one of the lowest in the nation (yes, legislators make more than starting teachers). Then he'll dig into other social issues.

"Collectively that's what educators in the state have said. They said you all are not doing your jobs so we want your seats," says Sheehan.

He's got support, too. Volunteer door-knockers, like Lee Hall, canvas Senate District 15 on his behalf. Both of her daughters became public school teachers, though one left because the pay was too low.

"I feel hopeful that we've had so many young men and women step-up and say 'I know I make a difference in the classroom every day, I think I can make a difference here too,' " she says.

"I'm excited to see more people in the process, to be frank," Jake Parsons says. He's the Director of Operations for the Oklahoma Republican party. "I know we've got a lot of challenges in our state, and the more people that actually step-up and get involved, I think Oklahomans are better for it."

He says it's not fair, though, to blame Republicans, who dominate the state Senate and House of Representatives, for Oklahoma's education's woes.

"I think our Republican leadership has actually put together a lot of really good plans to get money into the classroom, where that money really does the best work for our kids," Parsons says about the future.

Out of the nearly 40 educators on the ballot, do any of them have a chance of winning the election in November? "I've lived in this state for 20 years and this is the first time I've seen the Republicans on the defensive," says Keith Gaddie about the currently Republican dominated Statehouse. He's the Chair of the Political Science Department at the University of Oklahoma.

"A lot of these challengers are gonna lose, but they're not going to lose for a lack of trying, and they are going to put a scare in people," he says.

Republican Representative Earl Sears sympathizes with the educators' anger. He was a teacher and principal, himself, for more than 30 years before getting elected to the House a decade ago.

"What are these people doing? Where did this bill come from? What are they thinking?" he says he used to think. Now that he serves as the Chair of the Appropriations and Budget Committee he says he sees the state's money issues a little differently.

"It is a balancing act, and this isn't a criticism of any of the educators, but they really don't look at the big picture of how it all comes together," he says prioritizing one agency one can hurt others.

"I'll be perfectly honest, public education needs more money. Let me make it clear: They need more money. But let me also make this clear: I don't have any more money to give them."

The 40, or so, educators on the primary ballot today want to make this clear: Schools in Oklahoma have never had enough money and that's why they're running for office.

Copyright 2016 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.