14 April 2018
For the past two weeks, Oklahoma teachers have been striking for sustainable education funding. The Thursday before, an education bill was passed that caused many school districts to celebrate not having to strike. But the next day, $50 million of the new funding was repealed. Then it became clear that there was a deeper problem – two of the other funding sources would be diverted to other state agencies after the first year. (To clarify, the cigarette tax would rightfully go to health services and the gas tax would rightfully go to roads and infrastructure.) At this point, districts across the state allowed teachers to call school off to rally at the Capitol in Oklahoma City.
Many people questioned why the teachers still decided to leave the classroom since pay raises and a bit of general education are now law. The answer is simple: we do not want to get a pay raise or increased education funding at a cost to other state functions. Period. We have tens of thousands more students (40,000-60,000 depending on the source) than in 2008, yet that is where our funding amount came from. Without a new dedicated revenue stream, the allocated money could result in decreased funding for mental health services, rural hospitals, corrections efforts, state parks, infrastructure projects and maintenance, and/or other core state services, any of which would turn right around and harm the students and families we are fighting for. Should the state minimum pay schedule for teachers be updated for the first time since I moved to Oklahoma? Absolutely! Should it be at the cost of other agencies? Absolutely not!
At this point, I need to remind you that this is a personal blog and my opinions do not reflect the opinions of anyone else. I say that because this whole episode has been frustrating and having a blog gives me an opportunity to vent a little. See, I’m neither a Democrat nor a Republican because I see strengths and weaknesses in both parties as a whole. However, I’ve always admired the Republican idea of fiscal responsibility and that illusion has been wiped out. To me, financial responsibility does NOT mean cutting taxes no matter the cost. Instead, I would consider it taxing only what needs to be taxed to provide the services necessary and then making sure all revenue collected is used appropriately. What I heard in the Capitol and from others who have visited with our state Representatives and Senators is that a few of our elected officials thing we should blindly trust them to “find” the funding (it’s not lost: it needs to be created) and that some “representatives” believe it is more important to “vote my conscience” that vote how constituents are asking (or, well, demanding!). To add insult to injury, our governor thinks we’re acting like spoiled teenagers.
Since the beginning of this referendum on education funding, I have voted most days to return to school, with the argument that any legislative body that bickers so much they didn’t pass last year’s budget until this legislative term probably will not listen to reason. I was really, REALLY hoping to be proven wrong, but that didn’t quite happen. Instead, we have our funding for the first year in place and teachers realized that our current Oklahoma Congress have dug in their heels. My district went back Wednesday because the majority of our teachers don’t want to play chicken with our kids’ futures. But that doesn’t mean we’ve given up – it means we move on to Plan B. We will now send delegates down to talk to those who might be willing to follow the will of the people instead of their “conscience” (which I read to mean “donors”).
But we have a more powerful tool that has gone underutilized to this point: voting. There is a program called Chalk the Vote – Oklahoma, and I am totally in. It’s an initiative by the Oklahoma Institute for Child Advocacy (OICA) that will aim to find a “block captain” in each school, then “The block captains will receive and share policy updates regarding legislation, relevant state agency rules, nonpartisan electoral information regarding voter engagement and advocacy tools to help teachers engage with lawmakers. The goal is to maximize information, voting and political participation in Oklahoma’s education community.” So a day or two into the Walkout, I signed up to be a block captain. I’d encourage other educators who are frustrated to do the same. If we can vote in people who would rather support, advocate for, and properly fund our constitutional free public schools that steal tax dollars for private schools, we can make a huge difference.
Whew! After all that, I have to admit that the discussions in the Capitol were not all frustrating and noncommittal. There were several representatives and senators who had great plans, hope, and words of encouragement. With just a few more like that, I think Oklahoma schools could be properly funded without making my husband or brother-in-law (both state employees) lose their job. There is hope for a change after November! In the meantime, there is adoptaclassroom.org, donorschoose.org, and other sources where we can enlist help from others to pay for desks, books, art supplies, etc. The general public really does support public education, and they are willing to help when they learn there is a need.