Monday, thousands of school teachers, students and others gathered around the Oklahoma State Capitol building to call to attention the poor funding public schools have received.
Teachers from across Oklahoma came on buses, with friends, and even rode their bikes on the unusually cold morning, leaving classrooms to show legislators they wanted change. The walkout comes after several House Bills, 1010XX and 1023XX, were signed by Republican Governor Mary Fallin. Fallin said teachers should be thankful for lawmakers passing a $5,000 pay increase.
Some policy experts praised the measure, but said more was needed.
“The revenues approved in HB1010xx are a great start to keeping our best teachers in the classroom and undoing the damage caused by years of budget cuts,” a statement from the Oklahoma Policy Institute said. “With these revenues, Oklahoma will finally be able to provide significant raises for teachers and state workers and reverse some of our deep cuts to general school funding. The bill goes a long way to restoring the gross production tax, which had been hollowed out by unnecessary and unaffordable tax breaks that were holding back our whole state economy to benefit a few powerful special interests.”
Fallin, in a media statement, said she appreciated lawmakers “putting people over politics by approving this package of revenue measures to fund teacher pay raises as well as provide additional money for the classroom.”
Still, teachers said they will need more funding for supplies than what was passed in both bills.
Brandlyn Densmore, a sixth grade teacher at Oklahoma City Public schools, said she walked out Monday because she cares about her students. “We love our boss, we love the teachers we work with, we love our students, but our students don’t have everything they need,” Densmore said.
Densmore said the textbooks at her school were old. The social studies book had not been updated in ten years.
“I’m able to teach still because I can go outside of the textbook, but if we could just have the resources we need in our classroom, our kids would be so much better off,” she said.
She’s sure the state doesn’t have the money immediately on hand, but there are ways legislators could fund education. Many lawmakers were not in their offices on Monday. Teachers said some lawmakers posted a sign up sheet for advocates. Some protesters posted messages on social media Monday saying that lawmakers were not there because they didn’t care.
Senator Darcy Jech, R-Kingfisher, was checking his schedule with his secretary when people were filing into his hallway. Darcy said he had several meetings throughout the day so it was hard to meet with every one of his constituents.
“I told them they are welcome to come to the capitol any time, they’re just like any of my constituents, they are absolutely welcome to come in,” he said.
Jech said he and other lawmakers had several meetings throughout monday so he wouldn’t be able to meet with everyone that came in. The Senator said he had talked to a dozen teachers that morning from district 26 and doesn’t look at the march as a protest. He said schools in his district considered it an advocacy day.
Michael Brooks Jimenez, D-Oklahoma City, finished talking to a teacher with concerns while a line of advocates trailed from the doorway to his office, similar to Jechs.
Brooks said he encouraged the protest. “I think it’s great,” he said. “I think, at this point, teachers have been ignored for too long and taken for granted for too long, so I think it’s great they’re taking a day to advocate on their own behalf.”
Most expect the protest to continue throughout the week.Groups on facebook pushed for teachers to head to the capitol for a week straight.
Almost two weeks ago the Oklahoma Educators Association layed out a plan legislators could take in order to fund schools,and avoid a walk out. The plan, as outlined by OEA Executive Director David DuVall during a press conference, identifies $905.7 million in recurring revenue.
“When we announced the possibility of closing schools earlier this month we intentionally left out a specific plan because we thought the legislature knew where to find money to properly fund our schools,” DuVall said in March, before the passage of 1010xx. “While we appreciate the efforts to find some answers, they have all fallen woefully short.”
Many of the teachers said they did get a pay raise, but another area of importance is funding for support staff like Densmore’s co-worker, Laverta Salim.
“If you guys look around, there are a lot of us teachers that cannot make it on just our one income. We have to, I was at one point teaching, a teacher’s assistant, and I was coaching three different sports,” Salim said.
Many teachers were angered by a statement from Fallin. Fallin, during a television interview, said teachers should thank a legislator after HB 1010xx passed. Many of the signs displayed Monday pushed back at what Fallin said.Some teachers said the people who agree with the governor were “out of touch.”
“I think their out of touch with reality,” Amber Roxborough, a kindergarten teacher, said. “They’ve never spent time in a classroom and I’ve had 24 to 25 kids the last couple of years. My class is huge, and I can barely manage the kids that I have.”
Sally Tiller, a fellow teacher agreed.
“They have no idea what we’re really going through. It’s easy to look at numbers and say well that should be manageable, but when you haven’t been in a classroom, you have no idea,” she said.
Tiller said she invites lawmakers to spend an afternoon or two in her classes to see how poor the quality of supplies there is.
“Come and sit in my school, walk in my classroom, look at my textbooks, look at my desks that are falling apart,” she said.
Roxborough said she dared legislators to stay in a kindergarten class with her resources.
On Tuesday, advocates stormed the Capitol again, filling it to maximum capacity. The goal in mind was to removing the capital gains deduction, which in turn would generate more money for the state.
During a committee meeting Representative Shane Stone, D-Oklahoma City, said House Democrats stood with teachers. “In my discussions with educators over the last 24 hours numerous teachers have asked that we eliminate the capital gains deduction which would help make last weeks plan solvent,” he said.
Stone shared a video of the committee meeting where he commented, “The GOP leadership has refused to allow the bill to be heard, Rep. Scott Inman moved for it to be heard immediately. After an almost strictly partisan vote defeated his motion GOP leadership moved to adjourn, and I objected. This video shows both of those moments, you can hear the reaction of the hundreds of educators in the gallery. We must make progress this week! Teachers please continue to press representatives to hear and vote for removing the capital gains deduction!”
House Democrats on Monday released a statement standing with the teachers protest.
“Today, House Democrats stood with teachers and attempted several procedural maneuvers to bring legislation to the House floor that would provide sustainable long-term funding to education. Unfortunately, all but two Republicans voted not to hear the legislation that would have ended the capital gains tax exemption, which has cost Oklahoma more than $460 million over the course of five years and has shown a return investment of just $9 million,” the statement read. “This exemption disproportionally benefits wealthy individuals at the expense of Oklahoma’s education system and other core services. All 28 House Democrats remain ready to repeal this unnecessary burden on Oklahomans. We are calling on our friends across the aisle to do as the Senate has done and join us in ending this exemption so that teachers can go back to the classroom knowing that funding is on the way.”
Photos by Karalee Langford, Savannah Melher, and Jenna Lowrance, Pioneer Staff Writers
As Oklahoma’s teacher walkout continues into the sixth day, thousands have come to the state Capitol building shouting for legislators to hear they want more than just an increase in teacher pay.
Andrew Johnson Elementary School teachers came together in support of the cause.
Second Grade Teacher Lisa Kongs, has taught at Oklahoma City Schools for 40 years. She said lawmakers need to increase education funding.
“In those 40 years, nothing has really changed. We’ve had overcrowded classrooms, not enough funding for textbooks, we are way behind on any kind of technology funding,” she said. “Which has led to huge disciplinary problems. I’m not saying administration doesn’t address it, nothing really seems to change things. That’s a big time killer in the classroom for a teacher.”
Kongs is proud to be at the teacher walk out.
“We would all rather be in the classrooms,” she said. “Teachers need to be in the classrooms giving their students the state test, so that’s pevital. We feel very sad that our students probably won’t do as well, because of the timing of this, but we also felt like as educators that we had to do it now because if we waited until after testing we wouldn’t have the platform like we have now.”
In a way — history is repeating itself.
On April 17th, 1990, about 26,000 educators walked out of their classrooms, pushing lawmakers to pass House BIll 1017, an education reform package. At that time, the minimum teachers salary was about $15,000 for those with a bachelor’s degree.
Today, teachers have returned to fight for better future for their classrooms, and themselves.
Delois Byrd, fourth grade teacher, said she hasn’t heard much that’s gone inside the Capitol. “I hope there is a huge change, but what do I think will happen? Nothing. Not until next week,” she said.
Byrd and Kongs said they were disappointed the walk out has been portrayed as a day-by-day deal and that each day, teachers decide everyday whether or not to walk out.
“I don’t think the majority of the teachers feel that way,” Kongs said. “I think we’re all out here for the long haul, and a lot of public schools that will be back open, but — there will be a lot of rebels that won’t show, and will be here [at the Capitol] instead.”
Byrd said she wants people to know teachers aren’t there for themselves, they are there for their students.
“More than $200 million dollars has been cut in the last eight years, and there are so many things that have been ruined for these children,” she said.
At Andrew Johnson Elementary, the school librarian and the school counselor only work one day each. In addition, the school has no music or art classes.
“They can never get that time back,” Kongs said. “Think about all the songs they’ll never learn to sing.”
Byrd said her kids were disappointed they missed that opportunity.
“The answer is always ‘sorry we just don’t have the money,” she said. “They get that from home too. They come from low income circumstances, but in the past when they came to school there was plenty of everything — we try to fill in the gaps. Now its showing at school, too.”
Byrd and Kongs, spend a good portion of their time preparing for the year. They also spend money out of their own pocket.
Johnson Elementary third grade teacher Rachel Jenning uses her own money to prepare for the next school year.
“I would say every year that I’ve taught, I’ve spent $500 to get my classroom ready, and then probably $1000 over the year,” Jenning said.
Kongs said organization such as DonorsChoose, a program that empowers public school teachers with much needed supplies and materials, has helped tremendously.
“Teachers rely on it heavily,” she said. “We’re sad now because we’re seeing teachers are using [DonorsChoose] for basic needs. They are ordering desks, tables, and chairs for their children so they won’t be sitting on the floor instead of ordering cool science supplies, or field trips, or book shelves — how sad is that? People are donating money to us, so we can put our children in a chair.”
Byrd has 29 students in her class, Kongs has 27 students, and Jennings’ 3rd grade has 21.
“Our kindergarten teacher has 28 children,” she said. “Two (of those students) with severe autism, and she is alone, by herself all day, with no assistance. She cries everyday. It’s nothing but crowd control.”
Kongs said she isn’t the only one struggling with a high volume classroom. Byrd said she knows a lot of people who want to leave their profession or take a break from teaching because it’s so much work.
“You give your heart and your soul, and then you have other people saying you’re selfish or lazy,” Byrd said.
“Would you even let your child go to school in those conditions? I wouldn’t. It’s not safe,” Kongs said.