Gov. Mike Pence proclaimed in his first State of the State address this week that his administration will work with the new Democratic state superintendent to cut red tape in the classroom and "let them teach."
Justin Oakley surely got a chuckle out of that line. He's the Martinsville middle school teacher who announced in November 2011 – long before Glenda Ritz entered the race – that he would challenge Superintendent Tony Bennett.
In spite of some sound political experience, state Democratic officials offered him no assistance.
"Good luck, kid," was the state chairman's advice, according to the 35-year-old teacher. Party officials wrote off the school chief's post to concentrate on winning a U.S. Senate seat and the governor's office.
Too bad – if they had paid more attention to the groundswell building among educators, parents and any voter who knows an educator or parent, they might have won both. Oakley bowed out of the race before the Democratic state convention and supported Ritz, who turned out to have her own brilliant grassroots campaign strategy and a message that resounded with Hoosiers across the state. Of course, Democrat John Gregg might have a Statehouse office today if he had tied his campaign to Ritz's and invested some money in exposing Pence's education views as more radical than Bennett's.
But Oakley graciously worked to elect Ritz and also turned his energies to another project – giving teachers a subtle way to exercise their frustration with a "Just Let Me Teach!" wristband and a social networking site that serves as a virtual teachers' lounge. First posted in September, it was drawing 200,000 hits a week by the end of the year and is closing in on 4,000 "likes".
"Sometimes I think my 8th graders know more about how America was meant to be than those in Washington, D.C.," writes a Peru, Ind., teacher in one recent post on the Facebook page, Just Let Me Teach.
"I'm supposed to receive my National Board Certification recognition next week from our governor – the one who refuses to give teachers a fair contract," writes another teacher, from Hawaii.
The wristbands and window decals have drawn sales from nearly every state, with nearly 16,000 wristbands sold. Oakley has personally packed and sent every order. He was inundated with requests after the Washington Post's Valerie Strauss wrote about his efforts at her popular education blog, The Answer Sheet, in October.
Oakley said he's used some proceeds from the sales to support candidates and as donations to Martinsville-area missions, churches and schools. Some of the money is going to a college fund and covering medical debt for his daughter, who was born at Riley Hospital in Indianapolis.
Oakley is president of the local ISTA affiliate, but the effort isn't union-related and neither the NEA nor AFT have shown any interest. He's just happy that he's struck a chord with his fellow teachers.
"I'm awfully proud of this," he said. "We're spreading a message – a positive message – and we continue to grow and get teachers to engage."
Oakley might have missed out on a statewide platform, but he's instead tapped into a growing sense of frustration among teachers across the nation. His simple message is bipartisan and powerful.