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story.lead_photo.caption Elementary school principal Sherrie Conley, who is running for state representative in District 20, plants a campaign sign along a road in Goldsby, Okla.

NEWCASTLE, Okla. -- Sherrie Conley is like most people in small-town Oklahoma: solidly conservative. When she goes to the polls, she faithfully votes Republican.

But in Tuesday's primary election, the elementary school principal won't be voting for the two-term GOP state House member from her district. That's because she's trying to get him out of office.

Conley is part of a wave of about 100 educators, including dozens of Republicans, who are running for office in the aftermath of a teacher walkout that shut down public schools for two weeks this spring and opened an unusually bitter chasm in the state's ruling party.

Similar job actions swept the country this year in Arizona, North Carolina and West Virginia, as teachers protested education funding they argued had fallen too low to pay fair salaries and provide for students' needs.

Across the conservative heartland, Democrats hope the backlash will help revive their party's political strength.

But the biggest impact in a state that considers itself the reddest of the red may be inside the Republican Party itself, where members are fighting over whether the party must change to stand for more than just opposing taxes no matter what.

"Yes, I'm a Republican, but I have an opportunity to see what happens to our people when core services are cut and when we don't take care of our families," said Conley, 57, whose hometown school district went to four-day weeks to cut costs in the state's budget crisis.

She said the state Legislature can be both Republican and reasonable about public spending.

Her opponent is Bobby Cleveland, who consistently fought measures designed to make up for a sharp revenue shortfall caused by earlier GOP tax cuts and a slump in oil and gas prices.

"I've stood up against taxes, because that's what the people in my district want," said Cleveland, 75, who said the tax issue is clear-cut.

Two other teachers, a Republican and a Democrat, have filed to run against him, and several dozen other GOP lawmakers are also facing teacher challenges from inside their own party.

The foundation for the current conflict was laid in 2011 when Republicans took control of state government and immediately began cutting taxes and approving incentives for businesses. As revenue fell, budget shortfalls reached $1.3 billion two years ago and set off repeated rounds of cutbacks in state programs, including schools.

After two special sessions, with teachers preparing to walk off the job in April, the Legislature finally passed a package of tax increases on cigarettes, fuel and energy production that helped pay for an average teacher raise of $6,100. It was the first raise in a decade for Oklahoma teachers, whose salaries ranked 49th among the 50 states and the District of Columbia, and who were fleeing classrooms to take better paying teaching jobs in neighboring states.

Despite the raises, teachers walked off the job anyway, demanding more school funding for textbooks, classroom supplies and smaller class sizes. During the session's final weeks, battling among Republicans and conservative interest groups over the party's priorities grew intense. Next week's primary may be the clearest sign of any lasting political impact.

In Cleveland's district south of Oklahoma City, Republicans outnumber Democrats nearly 2-to-1. Residents in Newcastle, population 9,000, are fiercely proud of their local schools and have been troubled by the clash.

Avoiding the consequences of the GOP tax cuts was impossible because schools receive about half of the state's appropriated funds. After the revenue began dropping, about a fifth of school districts went to four-day weeks and many like Newcastle increased class sizes and canceled extracurricular activities.

"Jana and I are both staunch Republicans when it comes to gun rights and being anti-abortion, but ... we also support funding for teachers, even if that means a tax increase," said Michael and Jana Robins, both homebuilders whose children attend public schools in the district.

The fact that many teachers and parents in rural, conservative areas supported the walkout puts a different political spin on this election, said Ken Hicks, the head of the political science department at Rogers State University in Claremore, near Tulsa.

"In my view it's kind of a battle for the soul of the Republican Party. I think a lot of the more ideologically extreme folks are not aware of the impact their decisions are having on the public sector, on the day-to-day lives of people."

A Section on 06/22/2018

Print Headline: Angry teachers turning into candidates

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