Four years ago, Justin Oakley was the first Democrat to run for the office eventually won by Glenda Ritz. Today, the activist and talk radio host has three words for every single one of the Hoosier State’s teachers: Vote. Or. Die.
by Donovan Wheeler
If Justin Oakley were consumed with bitterness, you’d understand. He has reason to be, and it’s past “arguable.” But he’s not. Sure, press him on what happened in 2012 and he’ll lean back in his seat, run his fingertips across his chin, and stare into the open space of Gray’s Cafeteria in Mooresville, Indiana. He’ll let a sigh slip, too. Then he’ll turn his gaze back to you, let the vestiges of a grin creep onto his face, and he’ll shrug.
photos courtesy of Justin Oakley
“I was a bitter-ass person,” Oakley admits. “Mostly because I was thinking about me.”
In late 2011, then State Superintendent of Public Instruction—one Tony Bennett—stopped in Martinsville to give a quick presentation to the city’s teaching staff. Bennett, elected to the post in 2008 and wholeheartedly endorsed by then Governor Mitch Daniels, was deep into his push to lead the nation’s corporately driven education reforms, measures green-lighted by Hoosier voters during the 2010 midterm elections.
“[Bennett kept talking] about ‘Growth Models’ and ‘Sustaining Growth.’ He had a dry-erase board, and was working a four-quadrant graph,” Oakley explains. “He kept pushing all his marks, all his arrows into the highest quadrant: high growth and high achievement. Our math teachers started talking among themselves, and they finally turned to him and said, ‘You can’t sustain that. It’s not mathematically possible.’ Bennett said, ‘Oh yes you can,’ then I looked over and saw his campaign manager trying to cut him off and get him out there. That was the first time I consciously said to myself, ‘There’s something wrong, here.’”
Fully aware that Bennett would run for reelection the next year…equally aware that Bennett had already been ordained by an apathetic public…Oakley filed his candidacy. With a full year until the 2012 election, Bennett now faced an opponent.
Seven months later, Oakley was out. Days before the state Democratic Convention in Fort Wayne, Gubernatorial candidate John Gregg endorsed a little-known elementary school librarian, Glenda Ritz. The Indiana State Teachers Association followed Gregg’s lead, advising Oakley to step down.
“Teachers tell the public: I’m passionate about what I do…No one sees all the papers I have to grade…No one sees all the time and money I devote to my classroom… But the thing about that is: no one in the general public cares. They really don’t. They will look at you in the face, and tell you that they do, but then they’ll step into that booth every election and vote against you.” Justin Oakley.
Donovan Wheeler: Why did you back off?
Justin Oakley: “When I ran for State Superintendent, it wasn’t like I just said to myself, ‘you know, I need more stuff to do…I’m 35-years-old, from Martinsville with no resources no money…I’m just going to run.’ I actually planned for this, and it started when I looked around and realized that no one was running against Tony Bennett…probably for the same reasons that our churches and voting booths are empty. I mean, the guy was so bad, clearly awful, and no one was stepping up to take him on. So I figured that somebody had to, and I’m also a big fan of the David and Goliath story. At that time I was physically fit (I had lost almost 62 pounds), I was mentally fit, and I knew I was getting ready to embark on something that could change my life forever.”
DW: So, you start your campaign…
JO: “I prayed about it and thought about it a lot. We have a daughter who had a lot of needs at the time: allergies, asthma, and projectile vomiting every night. I was local president of the ISTA, I was teaching full time, and I was running for state office. I look back on it now, and I catch myself thinking, ‘How in the hell did I do all of that?’ But at the time I didn’t think about that. I just did it. I traveled around the state with guy whose biggest job was to keep me awake, and we raised almost $30,000 from over 700 donors. I wasn’t backed by either of the teacher’s unions…or any union for that matter. But I went forward anyway. My thinking at time was, ‘I’m just going to get out there, tell the truth, and take Bennett out.’”
DW: You faced doubters then?
JO: “Along the way I encountered two common reactions. The first one was, ‘You’re crazy. You’re not going to win, but we like you. You’ve got energy, and maybe in 40 years we’ll support you.’ And I also understand that, in the party system, there’s a ‘dues requirement’…a lineage, if you will. So, the second reaction came when people would look at me and say, ‘Who does he think he is, showing up as if he’s the guy? Why doesn’t he wait his turn?’ And every time someone threw that at me, I would look behind me and point to empty line and say, ‘I don’t see anybody else running for this thing.’ For seven months people kept asking me, ‘Why don’t you just wait…?’ We didn’t have time to wait!”
“Nothing will change until teachers decide to make [political activism] their number one priority.” Justin Oakley, quoting Gus Morales.
DW: But your campaign did get some traction, right?
JO: “We generated huge crowds. Dan Parker, from New Albany, approached me and said, ‘you better punch your ticket to [the state convention in] Ft. Wayne because you’re our guy.’ We would go to Jefferson-Jackson dinners and have to drive three times around the block to find a parking spot…nothing like JJ’s today. That year…2012…was just that kind of year, and it was the reaction to Tony Bennett, and the State Superintendent’s race that particularly drove all that energy.”
DW: But the party went with someone else.
JO: “We were supposed to meet with Gregg, and before that happened, one of his people contacted me and said, ‘We’re going to go with Glenda Ritz.’ They offered me a deal to get me out of the race, and for a while shortly after I was still a little defiant. I walked with my pastor, and I prayed about it. I kept thinking that I didn’t want to give up because I still felt like we could win. Then the ISTA approached me and effectively told me they would only support the candidate whom John Gregg endorsed.”
DW: According to the feature on Glenda Ritz in Indianapolis Monthly, you “took the high road” and did what’s best for the party. Is that fair? Is that accurate? You’re honestly saying to me that you’re not upset about what happened?
JO: “Not anymore. Glenda probably saved my life because if I had been in her seat for the last three years, I’d probably be in jail right now. The day they voted her out of the chairperson’s seat, I would have flipped over the table. But she always walks out smiling and looking composed. Which is really amazing because there’s so much more going on that we don’t know about.”As every Hoosier knows, Glenda Ritz toppled Tony Bennet in one of the most shocking electoral upsets in Indiana history. For his part, Oakley continued his crusade for the future of public schools under a new pair of mantles: Activist and Radio Host. The former began near the end of Oakley’s days in the classroom (today he works for the American Federation of Teachers) when he muttered, “You know, if they’d just let me teach…” The ensuing wristband and bumper-sticker campaign, which began as a Facebook page escalated to the sale of thousands of bands worldwide and national exposure with Valerie Strauss in the Washington Post’s “Answer Sheet” column. Following several guest stints on the Indiana Talks Network’s Johnny Stir program, Oakley parleyed his on-air time into his own show, aptly named after his Just Let Me Teach wristband campaign. Two years and 75 episodes later, Oakley has discussed the state of public education with everyone from local politicians and authors to national figures in education debate, including Anthony Cody and Diane Ravitch.
JO: “I often ask myself why I do this? I’m 38-years-old, and I could easily go do something else and genuinely enjoy my one earthly life. But I believe this cause is bigger than us. People just don’t understand it, yet…”
DW: What is this cause?
JO: “Fighting for what is right. None of this [reform] helps kids, and when you’re around [these reformers] and you’re exposed to their agenda, then you find out that none of this is about kids. And we already know all of this.”
DW: And what role do teachers play in this fight?
JO: “There’s some precursor to a movement that might happen, but the teachers aren’t ready for it because they haven’t learned how to fight this thing.”
JO: “You talk to any business person, any politician…they all speak the same language. That is by design. It is not a coincidence, because they’re not that smart. So they always say the same things: We need accountability…we need school choice…one sound bite after another, right in lock-step. But when you talk to us [teachers], we think independently and in much broader strokes. So we say things like: I’m passionate about what I do…No one sees all the papers I have to grade…No one sees all the time and money I devote to my classroom… But the thing about that is: no one in the general public cares. They really don’t. They will look at you in the face, and tell you that they do, but then they’ll step into that booth every election and vote against you.”
DW: How do you change that mindset?
JO: “I recently had Gus Morales on my radio show. He’s the Massachusetts teacher who was fired for taking down his mandatory ‘data wall.’ During our chat he said to me, ‘Nothing will change until teachers collectively decide to make this their number-one priority.’ Let’s look at where teachers are mentally. Look at all the things they have to do each day during the school year…that’s where their minds are most of the time. Other than 2012, teachers aren’t political. I think that now they’re starting to get it and see it…they’re 15 years late…but they’re finally starting to see that this is really on them.”
DW: So is this simply a numbers game? Or are we talking about tactics, too?
JO: “Both. We are in a fight where [the ‘reformers’] went ‘all-in’ on us. They threw everything they had at us and painted this perfect black-and-white picture of us in good and evil terms…throwing in these ‘all about the kids’ shots along the way. What we have never been able to do is speak in their language. Every teacher in the nation needs a little guide, a little handbook illustrating how we should talk to people who hate us. So when those people walk up and say, ‘Hey, Donovan. How much should we spend on our schools?’ Your answer should be, ‘I don’t know…probably more than we do on our prisons.’ Bam! You’re done. But we don’t answer like that. Instead we say, ‘Well, in 1997 there was a blah, blah, blah…’ No one wants to hear that. We live in a sound-bite world. Twitter is already a fad because 140 characters are too many for a lot of people.”
DW: But numbers are still a huge part of this equation, right?
JO: “In 2012 I used to say, ‘You need to start fighting back before you’re lying on your back.’ But people didn’t see the full picture then, and what they did see frightened them more than anything else. Well, you can’t fight back when you’re paralyzed. And the politicians knew that, so they told us they were standing with us in those early days. When they say they stand for you…they’re standing on your neck. They don’t fear anything except getting beaten in elections. I heard a gentleman say, just a couple days ago, that the bottom line is we can hold all the rallies we want, we can have 30,000 people march on the statehouse…they know we’re not voting. I’ll give you an example, according to the AFL-CIO: John Gregg lost by fewer than 75,000 votes last time around, but 250,000 union families didn’t vote. That’s sickening. Now look what’s happened to them in just three-and-a-half years: Right to Work, minimum wage. This next cycle is John Gregg’s race to lose.”
DW: What role did others play in allowing this to happen? Teachers aren’t the only ones who have a stake in this matter.
JO: “When people say things which are flat-out wrong, you’d think that every administrator in the country would have joined together in lock-step and said, ‘Forget it.’ But that didn’t happen. And where were the colleges? They’re speaking up now, now that their programs are getting slashed and they’re facing the silly micromanagement that’s been going on in k-12. But when all of this was going on in Gary…in IPS…in Fort Wayne…nobody really cared because ‘it isn’t happening, here.’ Well, now it’s here. Now the principals in these rural and suburban schools who once said, ‘We will never cut music and art’ are cutting music and art to make room for remedial math so that their test scores will go up so that they can get their money…which they still get shorted on.”
“…according to the AFL-CIO: John Gregg lost by fewer than 75,000 votes last time around, but 250,000 union families didn’t vote. That’s sickening. Now look what’s happened to them in just three-and-a-half years: Right to Work, minimum wage. This next cycle is John Gregg’s race to lose.” Justin Oakley
DW: But if you ask people who support reform, many of them will earnestly tell you that they’re trying to make schools better.
JO: “They say that they’re applying what works in the business world to the schools. But what they’re doing isn’t a business model—there’s no business model that runs like this. This is the 21st century’s last gold-rush. When you start pulling the layers back and looking at all of this, there’s money everywhere. If parents really knew that these ‘reformers’ were exploiting their kids for cash. If they knew how much we spend on tests, on test prep materials, on test books, on software, on technology.”
“And this is what we need to do. Every school in Indiana should have to hold up a card that says something like: ‘9,432.’ So when the public asks, ‘What is that?’ The schools have to say, ‘That’s how many hours we spent on standardized testing.’ You lay those numbers out for everyone to see—how many hours we waste and how many dollars we waste—it would blow people’s minds. And this is something we could do this week. But that gets us back to the original problem—the reason that only a dozen people show up at a union meeting. Every teacher in the building agrees that, ‘We need to do something about…’ but when the time actually comes to do something, most of those teachers say, ‘I can’t do that.’”
DW: And yet we have spent a lot of money, and a lot of time on all of this for years now. What have we gotten for it? Has it worked? Has it fixed whatever was wrong with schools to begin with?
JO: “That’s the $25,000 question. This is how crazy all of this is. Schools are still waiting on their scores—here in mid-December. And if the test is faulty, and according local leaders here it’s a ‘boondoggle,’ then you’re telling me that you’re going to use that data to grade schools? And you’re going to leave teachers waiting for the little bit of merit pay coming their way? And you’re going to use this to justify more vouchers and more restrictions on public schools? It should be scrapped. It should be thrown out. It’s one big mess. It’s like that bundle Christmas lights you used to try to fit into the Styrofoam box. Just when you have them in place, they pop out everywhere. They come out with the first test, and the results are better than they wanted them to be, so they changed the test, they changed the rules, they changed the parameters…this is Lucy holding the football for Charlie Brown.”
“And the fact that these guys are starting to flinch…? [Indiana House Education Chairman, Robert] Behning says, ‘We hear you!’ Bullshit. He’s been in charge of this, running the show on this thing for over a decade now, and suddenly he’s forming a summer study committee to find out why there’s a [teacher] shortage? He shouldn’t be in charge of this. Let me ask you this: We are now into the 11th year of reform. How long does ‘reform’ get to be called ‘reform’ until it becomes the status quo?”
DW: Apparently for at least eleven years.
JO: “I’m interested in opening up communication. I would like to get to know Bob Behning a little bit. Where’s he coming from? Did something happen to him when he was in school? Who convinced him that all of these measures were good ideas? What does he stand to gain from them? There are mountains of stories like this all over the place, but no one is covering them. And the press will never cover it until all the schools start to collapse. And the biggest part of this story is that it’s happening everywhere—this isn’t just an Indiana event.”
“And none of this is about kids. Nothing that’s happening has anything to do with helping kids, and nothing addresses learning. Did you know that there were so many ‘experts’ in education before all of this happened? And these people: the Jim Bairds, the Rod Brays, the Bob Behnings…they’re all nice enough people, but they keep repeating the same mantra and talking points about how education is 50% of the budget, how are schools are failing, how are kids are failing…failing, failing, failing. And these lines, they resonate with the 20% of the public who bothers to read a newspaper or the 9% who still have a land-line telephone at home. And until we do something it will not change.”
“Gregg is an experienced campaigner, a good guy, he was a good legislator, and he’s going to be ready to go the first day he’s elected. The question is, are teachers going to be excited about it? Are they going to go out and just focus on Glenda? Because this has to be a team win…that’s the only way this gets fixed.” Justin Oakley.
DW: “Something” being the operative word. And that something is an election.
JO: “This is why the Gregg race is so important. What we need to be saying to every teacher in the state is this: ‘Your life will change for the better the minute the man is elected.’ He has power over the State Board of Education. He has the power to veto the legislature. He has the power to immediately change the tone of how we talk about schools and education. He has the power to say we’re going to be transparent about charters. He can say that we’re going to dig into all this testing and find out who’s profiting from it. He has the power to change everything from day one, so don’t tell me, ‘Well, my vote doesn’t matter.’”
“Because it does matter…a lot. If they win…again, it proves that you can be THE WORST GOVERNOR in the history of this state and still win for one. And when it comes to social issues, Gregg and Pence aren’t that far apart. Gregg is a very conservative Democrat when it comes to those things. Look at Louisiana. They just elected a Democratic governor. How did he win? He did everything I said Gregg should do: ‘We’re going to let teachers teach…we’re going to have some transparency…’ And like Pence, their GOP candidate was terrible. So, Louisiana is exhibit ‘A’ as proof that we can win this thing. Gregg is an experienced campaigner, a good guy, he was a good legislator, and he’s going to be ready to go the first day he’s elected. The question is, are teachers going to be excited about it? Are they going to go out and just focus on Glenda? Because this has to be a team win…that’s the only way this gets fixed.”Two-and-a-half hours—and something like seven unsweetened iced-teas—later, Justin Oakley had found the critical talking point he had been hinting to all evening: the Glenda Ritz win was big, but it was more symbolic than anything else. The only race that fixes the mess Indiana has made of its education system is the one at the top of the Indiana ballot. “I remember Bennet walking up to the podium and giving that miserable conciliatory speech,” Oakley tells me. “I actually felt sorry for him…for about fourteen seconds. Then Pence steps up and says, ‘We’re going to keep moving forward with what Tony Bennet started.’ I thought…are you crazy? Did you not just see what happened? But, that’s exactly what they’ve done. They didn’t miss a beat. We took out one Goliath, and something like fifty more emerged on the scene.”