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Retired educator runs on education issues, wins stunning victory in OK state legislature

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by Marit Vike; image courtesy of James Johnson

Karen Gaddis retired from teaching in 2011. Over her 40-year teaching career, she taught classes ranging from seventh-grade math to AP calculus.

But for Gaddis, there was one thing that just didn’t add up: How the state legislature could short public education funding year after year while handing out tax breaks to corporate giants in the gas and oil industries.

Many of Oklahoma’s school districts have shifted to four-day school weeks and have unprecedented numbers of emergency-certified teachers. Oklahoma ranks 49th in the nation in teacher pay, and educators have left in droves for positions in other states.

Karen Gaddis couldn’t find a candidate to vote for who was willing to work on these problems. So she stepped up and ran for office to give educators a voice in the legislature. EdVotes caught up with her shortly after she was sworn into office.

EdVotes: What prompted you to get involved with politics?

Karen Gaddis: I got tired of being angry. I retired in 2011 and was very focused on what was going on both at the state and federal levels. It just kept getting worse and worse, and I kept getting madder and madder. It all came to a crescendo after the 2014 election, when extremist Republicans gained a veto-proof stronghold on the Oklahoma legislature. They could pass whatever they wanted to with no bipartisan effort. I heard one of the Republicans on the radio say, “We have a mandate from the people,” and I was sitting there thinking, “What people?” I didn’t even get a chance to vote since there weren’t any Democrats running in any of the elections I could’ve voted in.

EV: So the 2014 midterm election was a turning point for you.

KG: I thought, “This isn’t right. This isn’t the way democracy is supposed to work. I’m not going to let this happen again.” When the 2016 election rolled around, I watched every day to see who was filing for the House of Representatives for my district. There were no Democrats. So just before the filing period closed, I went to Oklahoma City and filed to run. It turns out that two other Democrats filed that day, too, so we ended up in a three-way primary. I won the primary with 63 percent of the vote.

I lost that race, but under some scandal my opponent resigned. I won the special election that followed. I ran on an education platform that resonated with voters because district 75 happens to be the 4th largest district in the entire state in terms of children under the age of 18. Everyone wants the best for their children or grandchildren.

EV: How do you feel that your role as an educator prepared you to run for and serve in this position?

KG: I have worked with a variety of teachers, a variety of principals, and a variety of superintendents, some of whom were wonderful to work with and some of whom were difficult to work with so I run the gambit there. I think those experiences give me the ability to work with everyone. In addition, one of the things I have been telling everyone is that in education you learn very quickly that it doesn’t really matter who gets credit for the job, it’s getting the job done that important.

EV: You mentioned that you ran with an education platform. What specifically will you be targeting now that you are in office?

KG: Oklahoma has cut taxes so drastically in this state that we don’t have any money for public services like education. Above all else, we have to address the budget. How are we going to raise long-term revenue? The best thing to do is raise our extraordinarily low taxes on corporations that deal in natural resources, such as oil and natural gas. Of course those companies are fighting this tooth and nail to try and keep those taxes down, but we’re missing out on hundreds of millions of dollars every year by taxing them at such a low rate.

EV: If the legislature does eventually raise revenues, how would you want to see them used?

KG: We have to start with teacher salaries because we have almost the worst teacher pay in the nation. Our teachers have not received any kind of raise in the last eight years and of course the cost of living has gone up considerably in that time. We currently have teachers who are visiting food banks because they can’t finish out the month feeding their own families. I even heard from a young teacher say that she had sold her blood plasma to get enough money to finish out the month.

In addition to salaries, we have to get classes down and stop our teachers from leaving the state. Right now we have a lot of unqualified people teaching in classrooms and the number of emergency certifications has just gone through the roof. We desperately need these changes, or else we’re going to end up losing a whole generation of children.

EV: Transitioning back to your campaign for a moment, was there anything that particularly surprised or challenged you when you were running for office?

KG: Well I knew running for office would be expensive, but I didn’t realize how expensive. One of the vows I made to myself when I filed was that I’m not going to bankrupt my family. Fundraising was really difficult and I did not initially have the contacts that I needed. In the last month of the special election, I brought in a professional campaign manager and it made all the difference in the world. She freed me up to make the right contacts and knock on doors and luckily volunteers from all over came to help me too.

EV: What would you say is your best piece of advice for educators looking to run?

KG: My best piece of advice for educators looking to run is to not wait until the last minute. Start to get some training now and get involved right away with any elections whether its school board or state representative or governor. Get involved so that you can see what it looks like from the inside. Then if you run and can possibly afford it, get a campaign manager. Pick somebody who knows what they are doing, who knows when it needs to be done, how it needs to be done, who needs to do it. They will take a lot of pressure off of you so that you can concentrate on getting elected.


31 responses to “Retired educator runs on education issues, wins stunning victory in OK state legislature

  1. Thank you, for stepping up to the plate Karen. I just retired last year . I have made a commitment to become more politically active regarding the current state of public education. We must continue to work together to ensure that public school educators and students are given every opportunity to be successful.Together We Stand!

  2. I am a retired teacher running for school board in Columbus, Ohio. So many people I meet say they are so encouraged that an educator is running for school board- something that has not happened for a very long time in our city. I personally believe that we must urge those from many professions to seek public office, retired or not.

  3. Karen has done a great service to all of those who want a better education for their students. I hope we in AZ (ranked 50) can get someone to push as hard for education and why the funding is so low. In AZ it is lowering corporate taxes and increasing vouchers for private schools and parochial schools.
    I hope Karen is just the first of many education professionals to take on a new role!

  4. Good for you! We’re practically all teachers in our family, we hate the way things are going. Chicago schools were good to me, but the mayor, governor, and of course DeVos are ruining things. Betsy honestly asked, “where are the pencils?”

  5. This needs to be done in mass here in Texas! I don’t understand the apathy here by Teachers, Retired teachers, family & friends of traditional public education? The extreme right is working through Charter Schools & Vouchers to destroy; the state teacher pay schedule, TRS, & TEA. They want No accountably of these 100 % state financed substitutes for Traditional Public Education. Many teachers do not want Abortion &/or any semblance of gun control! My philosophy is this; when teachers are working for minimum wage and drawing public assistance they will have No $ or influence to represent traditional Public Education, Pro life, or Gun issues!

    1. Teachers in Texas are apathetic no more! We are joining together in group Texans for Public Education to block vote solely for pro public ed candidates. No vouchers for Texas! Join us in Texas if you can put public education above political party.

  6. Folks this is very red Oklahoma here. If it can happen there, it can happen anywhere. Believe and work your tails off.

    1. I am interested in learning how to do it in my red state of SC. I’ve been a leader my entire 28-year career in education.

  7. I applaud you, Karen Gaddis. If I didn’t have cancer, I think I might be willing to join you. God speed . ..

  8. I always wondered who would run the oil generating equipment once we ran out of persons with that ‘know how’ because we did not support education for the future. “Eat the egg today and the shell tomorrow?” Or “Once upon a time, there were pioneers who said we need to teach our children. Oh, but the pioneers are so yesterday”

  9. I hope Karen is the vanguard of PRACTICING educators getting into politics. Remember: all politics is local. I spent 37 years in the classroom and twenty years on the City Council and fourteen years on the school board. Issues about children and their families were always “on the front burner” in our community. We need a Cadre of like-minded individuals like Karen to begin getting education issues infused into the minds of our local constituencies so that the public is not duped into feeling that Public Education is in its death throes!

  10. Thank you, Karen Gaddis, for dedicating your talents and energies to improving the status of education in Oklahoma, after already having devoted years of your life as a committed teacher and counselor. You could have been enjoying the well earned relaxation of retirement, so your willingness to engage in the rigors of political campaigning and the responsibilities of legislating is impressive. I am proud to call you a fellow Oklahoma retired educator. For the sake of our state and its future, I wish you much success as you serve!

  11. A great thing you are doing Karen .
    I wanted to do the same this year
    but been hit by a nerve / muscle
    condition but if they can find out
    answer I will try . You gave
    good advice and hope others
    will take it and not be scared off
    by the ” money and who you know”.

    God Bless and Great Success

  12. CONGRATULATIONS! Finally an experienced professional in a position to advocate for teachers & students! Your work is desperately needed!!

    – Retired New Mexico Educator

  13. REPEAL: WEP & GPO !!! American Widowed Women who TEACH…should not be robbed of their HARD-EARNED SOCIAL SECURITY BENEFITS !!! Support: HR 1205, S 915, HR 1902 (Larson), POWR Hr 1583 (Sanchez) and HR 2855. Missouri TEACHERS….NEED THEIR SURVIVOR BENEFITS…to avoid POVERTY….when RETIRING !!! REPEAL: WEP & GPO !!!

    1. Thanks Pam! IEA agrees and supports you on this…. educators need to unite and be vocal since many of us should not have our Social Security reduced in the great state of Illinois.
      In Solidairty!

      1. Yes repeal the WEP and GPO which unfairly affect teachers especially in just a few states! I have retired 3 times but have not taken my social Security because it would be so drastically reduced by the WEP. I am teaching again this school year and hoping they pass the repeal before I turn 70!

    2. I just wrote to my MA rep, Senator Warren about repelling WEP & GPO. PLEASE, all those that live in states wanting repeal, write to your senators.

    3. Yes, we widowed teachers absolutely need WEP & GPO repealed. Do the math: low salaries during our productive lifetime does not yield a secure retirement.

  14. Karen Gaddis I am so proud of you! I am an educator in CA. When I met my boyfriend he resided in OK. We had to decide who was going to move. There was really no decision to be made. OK teacher salaries are an insult to the profession. But this is what Republicans do. They get a majority, cut taxes, then cut education, then complain that the schools are failing. I hope more educators around the nation follow your example. Give em’ hell Karen!!!

    1. Karen Gaddis, a brave, intelligent professional educator, passionately advocating for students. Run Karen Run! We need your voice at the national level in light of the anti- education Republican platform. Educators who attended the NEA RA in Boston this summer showed that we are stronger together… We already Make America’s Students in Public Education Great through our hard work, dedication, along with community support. State budgets in education have been cut, and teachers use their own money for necessary classroom materials. IEA educators support you Karen Gaddis in solidarity and we all must continue to advocate for our students!

    2. …and then the CMOs , EMO’s, religious schools, and for-profit schools can present themselves as a cavalry of “knights in shining armor.”

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