OKLAHOMA CITY — In 2015, Rep. Dan Fisher, R-Yukon, rode high with the Tea Party, charging against the perceived liberal entrenchments of Oklahoma public education. Now, he’s riding into the sunset, out of state government.
Fisher’s political fate may provide a glimpse into the new wave of teacher-turned-legislators filing for office this election season, if their supporters prevail.
A Baptist preacher with a small church in his district, Fisher styled himself a would-be warrior against tyranny. He claimed to be part of the “Black-Robed Regiment,” a reference to American Revolutionary War religious activists who wore black robes into battle as a mark of their office.
At assemblies, services and other gatherings, Fisher would dress in Colonial-era breeches, hose, frock-coat, a black robe — as he is a preacher — and brandish a period-piece flintlock long-gun and pistol. In the legislature, Fisher was named to the State & Federal Relations Committee as vice-chair, and to the Common Education Committee, among a few others.
In February 2015, he buckled his swash and leveled legislative musket fire against state’s Advanced Placement (AP) History classes, filing a bill alleging the classes anti-American and anti-religion, “inaccurate, biased and negative and includes revisionist themes and concepts.”
“For example,” Fisher’s bill stated, “Very little is mentioned about the Founding Fathers, the principles of the Declaration of Independence, and the religious influences on our nation’s history.”
Educators, parents and others decried the bill nationwide, and Fisher later withdrew it.
By May, he joined the charge in Oklahoma against the Obama administration’s directive on transgender bathrooms, at the same time the torch was also picked up in other red states.
“As a sovereign State, OK has no intention of surrendering our public education to bureaucrats in Washington D.C. Most Oklahomans embrace Judeo/Christian values and we intend to protect our school districts from this immoral, ridiculous, unconstitutional decree,” he stated in release. That effort died too, amid more nationwide criticism.
Then, Fisher, unannounced, quietly retreated from the field of battle. He did not register in the upcoming election.
Retired educator Patrick Case has an idea of what happened.
“At the last minute, he pulled out,” Case said. “The five opponents he got…you can tell that people were getting a little upset about Dan’s representation when you draw that many opponents.”
Case is one of them. A former Western Heights math teacher for more than 20 years, he is also an actual veteran of The U.S. Army Reserve, and undertook a deployment to Iraq. Now retired, he filed as a Republican running for Fisher’s seat, House District 60, encompassing parts of Caddo and Canadian counties.
Case said the disastrous cuts to education, caused by a badly managed state budget, caused him to run.
“I am a Republican, but I’m also a realist,” Case said. “We are the party of fiscal responsibility. We have to pay for what we want done. We didn’t even come close.”
In particular, as a former teacher, Case decried successive cuts to the education, noting that this year’s supposed flat budget for common education was anything but.
“The thing about the budget was going to ‘hold education harmless’ Well, that was not true,” Case said. “We ate the cuts from last year’s budget. And the textbook fund and the activities funds were basically closed down. Having taught at Western Heights as a Title One teacher — that stuff is important, unless we want a bunch of ‘Haves’ and ‘Have-nots.’”
Fisher did not respond to repeated interview requests from The Frontier.
Case is part of a wave of educators and education-oriented citizens forming Oklahoma Parents and Educators for Public Education. The group’s page on Facebook has more than 24,000 members, and a voting list of scores of education-related candidates running for office, many of whom are teachers.
“Not all of them are educators, some of them are school board members, or PTA members, or really involved parents,” said Angela Clark Little, one of the founders of the group. “We have some who are incumbents who have been very helpful to us that we want to keep at the capitol. We picked the ones who are supportive or will be supportive of education. There are criteria that they met and we flagged them with an apple.” That list is here: 2016Listbook(1)
Starting as an Edmond-only concern, the group soon grew statewide in its scope. Their initial attempts at making a mark on education policy came with trying to influence sitting legislators, proposing measures and making public efforts. It wasn’t working.
“In 2015, we were fighting against bills, or trying to get bills through. Then we realized we wouldn’t have to fight so hard if we could just go back to the root cause of the problem, which is the people we have in office,” Little said. “From there, it went to, ‘Why don’t we find the people to run who will do the right thing for our children and our state?’ I had no idea so many people would step up to run. It’s been amazing.”
Darla Milligan, a former elementary school teacher running as a Democrat for House District 12, said her candidacy started even before the list, because she was on the front lines of the education battle, taking her spare time from teaching to talk with legislators at the capitol.
“I would find opportunities on Spring Break, or whenever I was out of school. I would go up and speak with the legislators about the issues. I’ve been so concerned for so many years about what’s been going on in our education system. It’s just a decline each year,” Milligan said.
Milligan said public schools are under fire from several areas, but most seem to focus on ways to take away money. When educators try to seek direct funding, they find instead funds being given to charter school vouchers. Lobbying for better public education funding would instead be turned to stopping vouchers.
From Milligan’s perspective, the defunding of the public school system is part of a movement to privatize it. Even talk of consolidation really just mean shifting public money to charter schools, she said.
“We’ve consolidated I think 34 schools since 1997, and yet, 32 charter schools started,” Milligan said. “My question for the state is, did they want fewer schools? That’s speaking out of both sides of the mouth.”
As for her compatriots in the teacher movement? Milligan said the large number filing to run for office surprised her at first.
“I did not see that coming. I’m thrilled to see it,” she said. “The state of crisis is evident to all of us in the business…Now it’s to the point that it’s jolted us. We have to stand out to make a difference.”
Another teacher involved in organizing and tracking candidates, Dallas Koehn, said he was also surprised at how many pro-public-education candidates emerged. His blog, Blue Cereal Education, began tracking the issue of education at the legislature, skewering those he sees as anti-education, and lauding those who he sees as for it.
“I made the decision to commit the energy this next year to get different people elected,” Koehn said. “That’s before I had any idea how many teachers, administrators, and PTA moms were going to run. That was a pleasant surprise. Everybody got pissed at once.”
Koehn said the current Oklahoma state legislators are out of touch with the majority of Oklahomans, and appear to have finally overreached their mandate — whatever it was — and are now feeling the backlash.
“I think we have a state legislature that is comfortably in their own little cocoon of upper-middle class evangelical white two-parent superiority,” Koehn said. “I don’t think they are evil. I think they just can’t fathom how the world can be any different from their world.”
Koehn said that while many of the pro-public education candidates running are new to state government, those who believe in supporting education are, well, educated. They have degrees and read books.
“I am confident,” Koehn said. “If we could get teachers and educators in a dozen seats, what’s the worst that could happen? I don’t see a way to go down from where we are.”