Oklahoma: Learning from ‘peripheral’ players in the teacher walkout story

Ahead of the November 6 elections, CJR invited writers to spotlight stories that deserve closer scrutiny, in their states and beyond, before voters cast their ballots. Read other dispatches from “States of the Union” here.

In April, I reported for The New Yorker magazine on the teacher walkout in my home state of Oklahoma. Though I had the luxury of over 5,000 words in which to tell the story, and the freedom from the pressure of an immediate turnaround, I felt more than the usual mourning for the details and quotes that didn’t make it into the piece. Contemporaneous newspaper coverage of the walkout focused largely on which school districts were or weren’t in session, or on what role the teacher’s union was or wasn’t playing. Television pieces often focused on stories of the difficulties of being a working parent during the walkout, and the question of whether student performance on the upcoming statewide tests would be affected. But at the walkout, teachers’ lunches were often provided by parent groups. I met many parents who brought their kids in to the Capitol to “show them how government works” or “to show them what their teachers are doing for them.” Those details, in retrospect, were arguably the most telling.

The Oklahoma City-based online publication NonDoc did a particularly good job of covering the walkout as a story about a transforming electorate, especially in its later coverage of the primaries and primary runoffs that followed the walkout in July and August, respectively. In a series of pieces that closely tracked the elections through the lens of education, NonDoc illuminated the deeper story—first in a story on the dramatic primaries, which saw the outing of many incumbents, then in a forecast for what might happen in the primary runoffs, and finally in a summary piece that detailed that forecast’s becoming reality.

The change in voters, though less visible and more vulnerable to the weaknesses of speculation, was in retrospect the most consequential part of the walkout. I was happy to have a chance to write a follow-up to my walkout piece that noted the extraordinarily high turnout for the primaries, and the unseating of Republican incumbents who had voted against teacher pay raises.

So many of the Oklahomans I spoke to were able to refer to members of the state legislature in a way we are more accustomed to hearing people refer to members of a national sports team. I should have had more confidence that these anecdotal observations were representative—and, even, central. Instead, I followed what was undeniable.

But could I have done more in the earlier piece to get at the deeper story? During the walkout, I spoke to many teachers and parents who described themselves as never having been involved in politics before. Others described having previously been party-line voters who didn’t have time to follow the details—but who now were watching their representatives refuse to even bring an education funding bill to the table. “I’m going to look at the individual person now, and not just the party,” one parent told me. A teacher from Mustang showed me an image of a past ballot question that her representative had claimed showed that the will of the people had voted against capital gains tax—a tax that teachers argued could be levied to support education. “It’s a half sentence in paragraph four of a State Question labeled as being about Cigarette Taxes,” she said. The capital gains tax was basically snuck in alongside very different types of taxes. “You can’t say that’s the will of the people.”

I had these details in a draft of the piece but, in the end, I cut them. They were cut for length, but also because I worried were too wonky for readers to follow, too far from the heart of the story.

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So many of the Oklahomans I spoke to, both on and off the site of the walkout, were able to refer to members of the state legislature in a way we are more accustomed to hearing people refer to members of a national sports team. I should have had more confidence that these anecdotal observations were representative—and, even, central. Instead, I followed what was undeniable: the long lines at the Capital for candidate filing, a process which overlapped with the final days of the walkout, and the end of the legislative session. That the number of filings was higher than ever before recorded and that dozens of teachers had put themselves forward as candidates was not only compelling, but also a simple fact, free from speculation. It was obviously important, given that, in the past, more than half of the legislators ran unopposed. But I should have made more room to track the more subtle changes manifest in speaking to people. Maybe I worried that I was hand-picking anecdotes that illustrated what I hoped was happening, but couldn’t, as a journalist, confidently say was.

Arguably, at the time it wasn’t clear whether the excitement at the Capitol was delimited, or if it had made its way out to parents, to voters. But public schools are an issue that most voters have firsthand experience of, that can’t easily be dimmed by partisan shell games. In the June primaries, when more voters came out than had voted in the 2016 presidential election, one person described the phenomenon as a parents’ revolt. All those lunches that parents had sent in to support the teachers were evidence of a greater phenomenon. “Remember November” proved to be a plan, not a wish.

In the primaries, more than fifty teacher candidates, often completely fresh to politics, advanced. Of the Republican candidates who had voted against a teacher pay raise, most were either primaried or forced into a runoff. The run-offs were even more dramatic. Six of the seven Republican candidates who had voted against the teacher pay raise that had been passed before the walkout were voted out. Republicans were being voted out, by registered Republicans, for being against a tax.

Reporting on the walkout I might have more confidently seen this coming. Legislators and teachers were visible key players in the walkout story; less visible but maybe more powerful were the parents and other voters who were watching them. Reporting that is sensitive to these “peripheral” players and stories might have done a better job of detailing the consequential and enduring change.

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Rivka Galchen is a fiction writer and journalist. She was raised in Norman, Oklahoma. Her work appears in the The New Yorker, Harper's, The London Review of Books, and The New York Times.