National school choice group opposing teacher candidates, teacher pay raise supporters
A national pro-school choice organization once chaired by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is spending money against Oklahoma teachers running for the state Legislature.
The Oklahoma chapter of the American Federation for Children has spent nearly $45,000 over the last week on direct mail pieces in four races ahead of the Aug. 28 runoff election, according to recent campaign finance reports.
The Oklahoma Federation for Children Action Fund is not only spending in opposition to candidates who are also teachers, but it is supporting candidates who either voted against a tax increase to fund teacher pay raises or have expressed opposition to the tax increase that was approved earlier this year.
Bob Sullivan, co-chair of the Oklahoma Federation for Children, said his organization wants to elect candidates that, "believe families should be able to send their children to the school that best fits their individual needs."
The state Legislature has seen efforts in recent years to expand school vouchers, which would allow parents to use state education funding for private school and other educational resources.
Those efforts often are met with strong opposition from public schools, but voucher programs for children with special needs and other unique circumstances have been expanded.
DeVos, the once chair of the American Federation for Children, has regularly pointed to the expansion of school choice policies as a goal for her administration.
Sullivan said his organization has supported candidates with various positions on this year's tax increases. The PAC did spend money on some candidates in the June primary who voted for the tax increase.
More than $6,000 was spent last week in opposition to Judd Strom, a Republican candidate in House District 10 who is taking on Rep. Travis Dunlap, who voted against a series of tax increases that funded a $6,100 pay raise for teachers.
“I supported House Bill 1010,” said Strom, referring to the bill that increased taxes on cigarettes, gasoline and diesel, oil production and hotels, which funded a teacher pay raise.
“I'm a conservative Republican but with the situation the government was in at the time ... something had to be done immediately.”
In a three-person primary race in June, Strom finished second with 42 percent of the vote.
Dunlap finished first with 46 percent, but without surpassing 50 percent he was forced into a runoff, typically a rare result for an incumbent.
“I voted for the teacher pay raise ... but what I voted against was the largest tax increase in Oklahoma state history,” Dunlap said.
Dunlap said he believed the state budget was improving and a teacher pay raise could have been funded without the tax increases, which he said are especially harmful in his northeast Oklahoma district.
“Oklahoma is in a very good economic state right now but voters aren't being told that,” Dunlap said.
The Oklahoma Federation for Children Action Fund also has spent money in support of Rep. Bobby Cleveland, another lawmaker who voted against the tax increases.
Cleveland, R-Slaughterville, faces Sherrie Conley, who is one of nearly 100 educators running for state office in Oklahoma.
The Oklahoma Federation for Children Action Fund is also spending money in runoffs for open seats, including in support of Jay Steagall in his House 43 race against Crystal Duncan, a third-grade teacher in Mustang.
There is no teacher running in the House District 82 Republican runoff, but the Oklahoma Federation for Children Action Fund is spending nearly $12,000 to support Brad Martin, a candidate who said he was against the tax increase.
However, the Oklahoma Education Association's political action committee has spent more than $50,000 this year on dozens of candidates, many of whom are teachers or school officials.
The Oklahoma Education Association, which is the state's largest teachers union, said it would ramp up its political advocacy this year, especially after a two-week teacher walkout in April.
The American Federation for Children spent nearly $170,000 in 2016 on Oklahoma campaigns, often in opposition to public school teachers who were on the ballot.