RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Last spring, thousands of teachers walked out of their classrooms, angry about years of low wages and poor funding. Some went even further and decided to run for office. In Oklahoma, nearly 100 current and former educators put their names on the primary ballot. The two teachers you're about to hear from are running for the same office, and Emily Wendler of StateImpact Oklahoma says they were inspired by the same moment.
EMILY WENDLER, BYLINE: On the first day of the Oklahoma teacher walkout in April, educators crowded into the capitol rotunda and chanted as loud as they could, hoping to get their message across to lawmakers.
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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: What do we want?
UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Funding.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: When do we want it?
UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Now.
WENDLER: Also on that first day, an Oklahoma legislator told a local TV reporter that the teachers were hired to teach and they needed to get back in the classroom. That interview motivated two educators, Steve Jarman and Sherri Conley, to run for that lawmaker's seat.
STEVE JARMAN: And right then I knew I was going to have to run.
SHERRI CONLEY: That was kind of my cue that it was time.
WENDLER: Conley, a Republican, taught for 15 years and is now a school administrator. She beat that Oklahoma lawmaker in a primary runoff. Jarman is a Democrat. He taught for 31 years and retired about a decade ago. They're now running against each other. Both say, if elected, they'll continue the fight for increased school funding and will be strong advocates for public education. Here's Conley's pitch to voters.
CONLEY: Who better to go up and try to help the legislature fix education and what's going on in the schools and the classrooms than somebody who's already been there?
WENDLER: But in this race, that pitch works for Jarman, too. So what makes them different? Jarman touts his experience as a leader in his local teachers' union.
JARMAN: So I've got extensive training in the negotiations process and writing negotiations language. That's kind of unique.
WENDLER: But he's worked in the same district his whole career, and Conley sees that as a mark against him.
CONLEY: I've had the opportunity to teach in schools that are inner city schools. I have taught in a rural school. I've taught in a suburban with high mental illness. And I feel like Steve just doesn't have that.
WENDLER: Both candidates also have major concerns outside of education. Jarman is especially worried about health care, and Conley is focused on improving the criminal justice system. But possibly the biggest difference between the two is where they plan to get the money to increase school funding.
Oklahoma lawmakers have cut taxes multiple times over the past decade. Those cuts contributed to a plunge in education funding levels, which are now among the lowest in the nation. Jarman says there's no question lawmakers need to restore those tax cuts.
JARMAN: It's very simple. You can't continue cutting taxes and expect to keep funding core services.
WENDLER: Conley does not support raising taxes. Instead, she promotes auditing state agencies for waste and putting some of that money toward schools. In the next legislative session, state lawmakers will also have about a billion dollars more in revenue than they did last year, due in part to a healthier oil and gas economy.
CONLEY: I'm looking forward to hopefully having a say in where some of that funding goes.
WENDLER: At this point, education has trickled into nearly every Oklahoma midterm election. Even state treasurers are arguing over who supports public education more. But what that support will actually look like remains to be seen. For NPR News, I'm Emily Wendler in Oklahoma City. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.