I've taught high school English for a little over 20 years. In that time I've seen times of good and bad funding. I have watched over the course of the last 10 years as funding was continually cut year after year. Under Governor Brad Henry (our previous governor) teachers saw significant raises and school funding was at an all time high. Once Governor Mary Fallin was elected, she began cutting taxes on the wealthiest Oklahomans, dropping the gross production tax, and when the oil boom petered out she and her party lowered the GPT even more to a record 2%.
I am a father of four teenagers. Currently my grocery bill alone is right at $700 per month. I get a salary for teaching English but I am also the alternative education director and the online schooling coordinator which provides an extra stipend. My wife works, but her hourly wage provides only half of what I bring home. I do not live extravagantly. I live in my means, but do not have a savings account, have only two cars, and live in a modest house.
If we use my financial situation as an metaphor for how the state has managed the budget over the past 10 years, it would be like I had all of those needs, but I took a job making minimum wage for 20 hours a week. State agencies need money to operate. When in history has the trickle down effect every worked?
I have many observations as a teacher who has spent his entire 20 year career in Oklahoma. The walkout gave me some new perspective about my state, the future of education in this state, and my co-workers.
We may have waited too long to protest. Education budgets have been cut at the state level for the past 10 years. At my school alone we faced a $250,000 cut three years ago, two years ago a $75,000 cut and a $54K cut this year. That's $375K cut from our budget in just three years. We were told we wouldn't be cut this year, but we have. The point is that teachers should have walked out after the first two years of cuts. Waiting until now has allowed this culture of "cutting your way to prosperity" to become ingrained.
My student teacher's graduation hung in the balance. My student teacher is required to teach a solid 6 weeks in the classroom and must teach a full day. If he doesn't, he won't graduate. His graduation ceremony is May 12th, but we will still be in school. School has been pushed to one week past the original date of termination. If we would have been out for one more week, many student teachers across the state would have been left in limbo.
The Oklahoma Teachers Association ended the walkout without much accomplished. Many teachers are upset that the walkout ended when it did. Governor Fallin signed a funding bill into law which gave teachers and support staff a small raise and put more funding back into schools. However, the funding will go away after the first year, leaving a $117 million hole to be filled. Currently former Senator Tom Coburn is trying to take the funding away from the bill, saying that taxpayers didn't get a say in the multiple tax increases (they still didn't raise the GPT more than 5%). All states north of us have a GPT in the double digits. The OEA has taken much backlash because they at first cut their demand of $50m to $25m and then ended the walkout prematurely.
Our legislature used dirty tactics to fight back. The Republican controlled legislature would often adjourn for the day at 10 am, wait to meet until 1:30 in the afternoon, or have closed-door meetings at 2:30 in the morning. Often I would approach my legislator's offices to find them either out of the office or in their office with the door closed. They did their best to avoid constituents, and even with the masses of teachers making appointments, many of the appointments were cancelled or postponed for inane reasons.
Student achievement was probably diminished. We successfully administered the ACT test to our juniors because we made an effort during the walkout to get students to school. We sent out a bus to pick up students who needed a ride, fed them hotdogs, and gave other incentives. However, we were not able to do any prep for students which might effect their scores. Regardless of how the scores will effect our school API, the more important result will be whether or not the students were able to benefit from the ACT test. I suppose we will find out when the scores are released in a month or so.
My fellow teachers are more divided than ever. As I write this it is our first day back to school after the walkout. Much bad blood is swirling as some of the teachers who didn't think the walkout would do any good are angry at the teachers who walked out. The teachers who walked out are angry at the teachers who didn't. Administration is caught in the middle, trying to support the teachers who walked out while appeasing the teachers who didn't. Before all this happened, my building was a somewhat happy place to work, but now it has become a place that will have to go through a lot of healing to get back to that atmosphere.
Hundreds of teachers filed to run against incumbents. On Wednesday of last week (4/11) over four hundred teachers and educators filed to run for office against the legislators currently in office. It was a historic event, and hopefully the people of Oklahoma will take the education of their children seriously and vote for people who will be pro-education. The legislators who made the most egregious statements about teachers will be facing hard battles (hopefully), but time will tell.
I will be watching the November elections carefully. I am interested to see how many incumbents keep their positions. When the election rolls around in November, I will keep careful note to see which educators gain seats in our state government. It could be a watershed event, or it could be a train wreck. Straight party voting is allowed in our state, and most people do that. Also, even though I'm pro-life, many evangelicals in the state will vote on the one issue of abortion. The candidates who are pro-life are mostly anti-public education and anti-taxation. It will be an interesting election, and I will be watching closely.
There is a backward economic culture in this state. When in the history of government has slashing taxes and funding helped any state prosper? This voters in this state seem to live by the motto of "taxation is theft". The problem with this is that taxes are required to run basic state agencies. They are not funded privately. We pay taxes to have good schools, good roads, and good healthcare. I do not have any faith that the culture of this state will allow adequate taxation for the benefit of their education system.
I am giving it one more year. It is a difficult decision for me. My mother is elderly and lives alone without any family nearby. I take care of her yard, maintenance on her home, and run her to the optometrist. I have two children who will graduate from high school in 2019. I have taught in Oklahoma at the same high school for 20 years. My wife doesn't like new experiences. However, I must take care of my family. If the situation does not improve, if government will not continue to fund the raise they gave us, if anti-education candidates continue to populate the halls of the capitol, I will seek employment in another state where I can be treated as a professional and paid as a professional.
To use a metaphor, it is as if Oklahoma has been doing terrible things in their back yard. The people who have been at the business end of these terrible things are fighting back, and all of our neighbor states are looking over the fence and gawking at how horribly our state is managed. It is my hope that things will change, but after teaching in this state for over 20 years I don't have much hope left. Not only is former Sen. Coburn trying to take away the funding for the new raises, but Senator Schulz and Rep. McCall, with senate bill 1569 are trying to rob the teacher retirement system to fund education and other state agencies. As stated, horrible things are happening in the back yard.
If you would like to discuss the topic (and I know it's not about writing) please leave a comment in the space below. I welcome your comments and solutions. If we work together then maybe we can save our state from educational oblivion.
Hopefully someone will have the common sense to solve these problems. Our children are depending on us.