A Lawmaker Ridiculed Educators. Then A Teacher Revealed Plans To Run Against Him.

"We have amazing teachers that have decided to stay and do the best that they can with what we have, and we’re doing it, but it's just not r

Oklahoma educator Cyndi Ralston was ready to run for office against Oklahoma's Kevin McDugle, but an ill-timed Facebook post from the representative in her district accelerated her announcement.

Ralston, who has taught in the state's public schools for 30 years, announced her campaign just two days after Kevin McDugle, a Republican in the state legislature, derided teachers in a Facebook Live video following the Oklahoma walkout. In response, Ralston announced that she'd be running as a Democrat for the state seat in District 12, where McDugle currently sits.

Ralston helped organize protests at her school as part of a larger statewide movement to increase teacher pay and school funding. As of Tuesday, Oklahoma teachers — who are paid the second lowest of any state in the country — were on the ninth day of their school walkout. About 500,000 of the state's 700,000 students have been affected by the walkout. 

Ralston says school funding has reached a point that it's untenable.

"It's gotten to the point where we are not serving our students and not protecting the youngest of our state and giving them the best of what we can give them," Ralston told A Plus. "We have amazing teachers that have decided to stay and do the best that they can with what we have, and we're doing it, but it's just not right."

Courtesy Cyndi Ralston
Courtesy Cyndi Ralston

McDugle said he had voted to increase teacher funding once already, but wouldn't vote to do it again. In his Facebook video, he said he would not vote for another bill to increase funding or salaries for schools and teachers. In April, lawmakers raised salaries for teachers by an average of $6,100, increased pay for support staff by $1,250, and added $50 million in funding for schools.  

"I'm not voting for another stinking measure when they're acting the way they're acting," he said on the second day of the walkout. "Now you're going to come here and act like this after you got a raise?... Go ahead, be pissed at me if you want to."

But Ralston says if you ask teachers, you'll find that their movement was never about the raises alone. Teachers are asking for $100 million in school funding, $10,000 raises over three years and $5,000 for support staff. Ralston says the state's legislature immediately stripped a $40 million revenue source from the bill that was passed in April, and the lack of appropriate funding increases is what set off the walkouts, which began on April 2. 

Budget cuts in the state have been so bad that some schools have gone to a four-day week. Ralston says a new teacher in one of her classes, who took on a second job when she learned her salary, couldn't believe how much money she spent out of pocket to support her own classroom. 

"She said, 'no one ever told me that I would spend $4,000,' which is what she spent to date in her first year," Ralston said. "We don't have supplies like we used to. We used to get a classroom budget to buy supplies for our room."

Ralston, who has taught first- through fifth-grade classrooms and has been a gifted resource teacher, said the problem has been especially bad since 2008, when the recession hit. Since then, she said, she's noticed the classrooms, schools and funding have all seemed to be in a rapid decline. And her instincts are accurate: The nonpartisan Center on Budget and Policy Priorities said Oklahoma's inflation-adjusted per-student funding fell by 28.2 percent between 2008 and 2018, Reuters reported. That's the worst of any state in the country.

Courtesy Cyndi Ralston
Courtesy Cyndi Ralston

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos responded to the school walkout by saying Oklahoma teachers should "keep adult disagreements and disputes in a separate place."

"I think about the kids," DeVos said to the Dallas Morning News. "I think we need to stay focused on what's right for kids. And I hope that adults would keep adult disagreements and disputes in a separate place, and serve the students that are there to be served."

When she was read DeVos's comments over the phone, Ralston let out a deep sigh.

"When Ms. Devos steps up and does right by public education students, she can speak that," Ralston responded. "We are doing right by our students. We are the only ones doing right by our students. Nobody else has cared about our students for the past 10 years at all. They have not given two thoughts to our students."

Ralston also noted that some teachers are returning to school to help administer SAT tests for their students. A nonpartisan poll released last Friday showed 72 percent of adults in the state supported the teacher walkout. 

The Oklahoma walkouts are part of a larger movement happening across the country. In West Virginia, more than 20,000 West Virginia teachers went on strike in February for better pay and funding. After nine days, they were given a five percent pay raise. Teachers in Kentucky shut schools down with protests over pension reforms. Now, teachers in Arizona are also threatening to go on strike in protest of low pay.

"I am very proud of all teachers in the nation for standing up," Ralston said. "This experiment of trickle down has not worked and it has been proven in every one of those states. We're in dire straits. Those children are the future of our country and we are standing up for them."

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