At a recent campaign stop at a coffee shop in the GOP stronghold of Bethany, Oklahoma Republican gubernatorial hopeful Kevin Stitt pitched his plans to boost teacher pay without increasing taxes to nods and approving applause.
But from the back of the crowded room, one Stitt supporter called out that he needed to do more to engage teachers in the state.
“Kevin! I’ve got teacher friends … We’ve got to get out to them that you do care,” the woman shouted out, waving her hands passionately. The room was quiet. People shuffled their feet and turned to look at her. “(We’ve) got to get it out somehow that we really do love and care about them, because they don’t think that …”
Stitt slowly raised his arm holding the microphone that had been dangling at his side.
“Absolutely, yeah,” he said. He was no longer smiling. He later elaborated for the crowd.
“We’re going to be top 10 in education and we’ve got a plan to get us there,” Stitt said. “But it’s really kind of sad. The unions just stir things up. So we’ve got to get the message out there.”
Stitt has vowed to make Oklahoma teachers the highest paid in the region, but has still struggled to win widespread support of educators in the state.
Stitt said early on he did not support this year’s Oklahoma teacher walkout. He also drew the ire of many teachers by signing the Oklahoma Taxpayers Platform, a seven-point pledge backed by former Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn that included vows to eliminate personal income tax and promises of a “dramatic downsizing of state bureaucracy.”
Stitt did not sign Coburn’s other petition, which called for a ballot measure that would have rolled back the tax increases that funded the teacher pay raise.
“He can say all day long he supports public education, but he told us who he was at the very beginning,” said Stillwater teacher and walkout organizer Alberto Morejon.
Stitt says education reform is possible without new taxes.
In an interview, Stitt said he believes Oklahoma can improve public education by increasing efficiencies and allowing schools districts to use property taxes to pay teachers.
He’s called for audits of state agencies and the ability to hire and fire agency heads.
“Do not let anyone ever tell you we don’t have the revenue,” Stitt said. “We spend $22 billion in our state and every year we have 120 different state agencies. There’s no accountability, no transparency.”
Stitt’s plan includes offering new teachers in the state $5,000 recruitment bonuses and raising teacher pay to the highest in the region. The state’s improving economy and improving revenue picture due to the recovering economy will help produce the money for the plan, he said.
Revenue numbers are better than previous years, according to the Office of Management and Enterprise Services, but the state’s latest revenue allocations have still fallen short of projections.
The state’s general revenue in September, which includes all taxes paid into the treasury, was $545 million, about $8.2 million or 1.5 percent less than expected.
Stitt tries to woo teachers
While Stitt’s children attend private Christian school, he himself is a product of public education. He attended Wayne and Norman public schools.
“I know that we’ve got to focus on public education because that’s where 95 percent of our kids go,” Stitt said.
In May, in honor of National Teacher Appreciation Day, Stitt gave a shoutout to his favorite Norman High School science teacher David Askey in a campaign video posted on Twitter and Facebook.
Askey “made a huge difference and made class fun.” Stitt said in the video.
Askey still works at Norman High, where he has taught science for more than 30 years.
I went to meet him at a Norman coffee shop, where he holds office hours from 6 a.m. to noon every Saturday.
Askey remembers Stitt fondly, but he won’t vote for him.
“Great kid — I can’t say enough good things about him,” Askey said. “Salt of the earth kind of guy. Kevin Stitt is a wonderful guy. I would like to go hunting with him — he’s that kind of guy.”
Even in his high school chemistry class, Stitt showed signs he was a good leader. He was always debating with his classmates, Askey said.
“I just don’t know if his plan is viable.” Askey said. “Our government is cut to the bone right now.”
Askey teaches through the Socratic method — asking and answering questions to encourage critical thinking.
“There’s no textbook — it’s all through discovery,” he said. “I try to get the kids to think in the way that great thinkers thought.”
Depending on whether or not a test is coming up, Aksey’s students can fill half the coffee shop — he’s had as many as 40 come in on a Saturday to study. When I was there, a former student who now attends the University of Oklahoma was paying a visit and told me Askey was one of the best teachers he ever had.
If the Oklahoma Legislature hadn’t passed a revenue-raising measure to give teachers an average $6,000 raise earlier this year, Askey said he and his wife, who also teaches, would have probably retired or left the state.
Askey said he will vote for Democrat Drew Edmondson for governor, in part because of Edmondson’s support for the teacher walkout.
“Drew Edmondson was there every day at the marches,” Askey said. “Stitt wasn’t. He has a hard row to hoe trying to get teachers to agree with him.”
Edmondson garnered early support from public school educators in the state by pressing palms and handing out water at the state Capitol during the teacher walkout in April.
He also says he has a plan to raise $300 million to fund education in the state by raising taxes. The plan includes a new 50-cent tax on packs of cigarettes, raising taxes on new oil and gas production to 7 percent and ending a capital gains tax deduction.
The plan has helped Edmondson win the endorsement of Oklahoma’s largest teaching professional organization, the Oklahoma Education Association.
OEA Communications Director Doug Folks said that while Stitt met with the organization’s leadership, he did not participate in the process to garner an endorsement from its political action committee, the Fund for Children and Public Education.
“Before giving a recommendation, candidates must meet with a committee of our members and answer questions about education. Stitt declined to participate,” Folks said.
Stitt’s campaign said it did try to arrange a meeting with the committee, but could not find a mutually agreeable date. OEA’s political action committee announced its endorsement of Edmondson before a new meeting could be scheduled, Stitt’s deputy campaign manager Donelle Harder said.
Teacher walkout organizer Morejon also said he has never been asked to meet with Stitt, although many other candidates for state offices have called or asked for meetings with him.
Morejon manages the Oklahoma Teacher Walkout – The Time Is Now page on Facebook, which has about than 70,000 members and helped ignite the statewide teacher walkout this spring.
He and many other people have sent Stitt and his campaign a list of 10 questions that educators want candidates for state offices to answer. The list includes questions on whether candidates supported the teacher walkout and what they would do reduce class sizes in the state.
Stitt has so far ignored the list of questions, Morejon said.
“Here’s the deal — I get stuff sent to me from every single industry,” Stitt said. “I just refuse to fill out all their forms. I don’t want to be another check-the-box politician.”
Stitt said he and campaign staff have invited Morejon to attend one of his public appearances in Stillwater.
Morejon said he missed Stitt’s last appearance in Stillwater, but he’ll be there next time.
“The next time he comes to Stillwater, I’m going to go and hold my hand up in the air and ask him every question I can think of,” he said.
A page on Stitt’s campaign website called Green Apple Teachers for Stitt features videos and photos of supporters and asks educators to submit their first and last names for inclusion on a yet-to-be published list of teachers who support Stitt.
The Green Apple Teachers for Stitt page includes a video of a woman named Niki Witt. Standing in front of a classroom display of the letters of the alphabet, Witt does not identify herself as a public school teacher in the video, but people might infer that from its inclusion on a webpage for teachers who support Stitt’s candidacy.
“I know Kevin will be sure to get teachers raises and get taxpayer dollars back into our children’s classrooms,” Witt says in the video.
Records show that although Witt works in the field of early childhood education, she is not a public school teacher in Oklahoma. Her husband, Brandon Witt, is a vice president at Stitt’s company, Gateway Mortgage.
“We are proud to have Niki’s support as a mom of children in public school, as a daughter to an 18-year Oklahoma superintendent, and as an expert in childhood early learning,” Stitt’s campaign said. “Her kids attend Jenks Public Schools, her dad was a superintendent for Weatherford and Ardmore Public Schools, and her profession has been in early childhood development. She supports Kevin’s vision for Oklahoma being Top Ten in education, and we are thankful for her support.”
Stitt’s campaign said it has recorded more video endorsements and plans to update the page soon.
In another video on the Green Apple Teachers for Stitt page, a woman who only identifies herself as “Charlotte” says she is a longtime educator who supports Stitt for governor.
Stitt said he would not say what school Charlotte teaches at for fear of opening her up to online harassment.
In a television ad unveiled earlier this month, Stitt is shown packing school lunches and dropping his children off at school. The ad features Stitt talking to a blonde woman in a black suit who stands in front of a classroom.
Stitt’s website and social media posts promoting his education platform have also featured Stitt sitting in a school classroom next to the woman.
A Facebook post that has gone viral in the past week identified the blonde woman in the black suit featured in the ad not as a teacher but the wife of a Tulsa doctor.
I could find no record of the woman featured in the ad being a certified teacher in Oklahoma.
Again, Stitt’s campaign materials do not directly state that the woman is a teacher.
“When you film commercials, you get moms and kids in there doing whatever,” Stitt said. “Those are friends and supporters, volunteers. It’s b-roll of people who are just in the background.”
Stitt has met with many teachers across the state, and has recently visited public in Altus and Elgin, as well as a few charter schools in the Oklahoma City area, he said.
Yes, there are Oklahoma teachers who support Stitt
Several people told me it would be difficult to find Oklahoma public school teachers who support Stitt. But I easily found many educators who like his ideas and seem genuinely excited about his campaign.
At that Stitt campaign stop in Bethany last week, I met Matt and Donna Rice-Johnson, both veteran Oklahoma City public school teachers. They waited in line to snag a Stitt yard sign after the event.
“We like that he’s independent and hopefully not going to be bullied by the special interests,” Donna Rice-Johnson said.
“We need somebody outside the box because the box is a mess,” Matt Rice-Johnson said.
Several other teachers who say they are voting for Stitt contacted me after I put a call out on Twitter in search of supporters.
Ryan Walters teaches history and government courses at McAlester High School and was a finalist for Oklahoma Teacher of the Year in 2016.
He likes Stitt’s ideas to have public schools work more closely with the state’s higher education CareerTech systems to better prepare students to enter college and the workforce. Walters also supports Stitt’s ideas to recruit new teachers to the state by offering signing bonuses of up to $5,000 for new teachers and reforming Oklahoma’s teacher certification process by adopting the Praxis exam, a test used to certify teacher in about 40 other states.
Oklahoma currently has its own, somewhat cumbersome teacher testing system that Walters’ Arkansas university education did not prepare him for, he said.
Walters also likes that Stitt favors allowing school districts to use property tax money to pay teachers and hire staff and simplifying the state’s school funding formula.
“We have passed several tax increases and the lottery that have raised revenue for education, but one of my biggest issues is that there hasn’t been enough done to make sure it gets to the classroom,” Walters said.
Walters said he and other McAlester educators got to meet with Stitt the last time he was in town.
“We met with him for over an hour and I feel like he really listened,” he said.
Misti Paxton, who teaches second grade in Tuttle, said she likes that Stitt is running as an outsider and that he wants more accountability on school funding.
“I’m not against raising taxes,” Paxton said. “But we need to make sure those funds are being used efficiently. I think that’s the problem. In the past, spending hasn’t been as transparent as it needs to be.”
Paxton, wife of State Sen. Lonnie Paxton, R-Tuttle, said that her suburban school is well-managed. Her district did not participate in the April statewide teacher walkout. In Tuttle, there’s money for textbooks and class sizes are small.
But she knows that’s not the case across all Oklahoma school districts.
While Paxton has 22 students this year, one of her teacher friends in Lawton has 32 in her class, she said.
But she’s tired of all the teacher groups she follows on Facebook telling her she needs to vote for Edmondson. She wants someone with new ideas, she said.
“As educators we all jump on the bandwagon of Democrats sometimes,” she said. “People are so anti-Stitt. I think it’s kind of silly as an educators we don’t look past the rhetoric and the political stuff. I think it’s time for a change.”