Fed up with school spending cuts, Oklahoma teachers prepare to walk out

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MUSKOGEE, Okla. — In Monday’s damp predawn darkness, teachers gathered in front of Muskogee High. But instead of heading to their classrooms, they piled on to a bus painted with the school’s mascot — the Roughers — and headed 150 miles west to Oklahoma City.

The 30 or so teachers joined thousands more at the state Capitol, part of a statewide walkout that has shuttered schools across the state. Teachers in Muskogee, where the gym roof is so leaky that volleyball games get “rained out,” arrived to urge lawmakers to restore education funding. Many of them came bearing a threat: Increase education funding, or teachers will not return to work.

“I’m fed up,” said Rusty Bradley, a high school technology teacher whose classroom computers are more than a decade old, as the bus rumbled toward the state Capitol. After nearly 28 years on the job, he has seen state lawmakers repeatedly pledge to give teachers raises and restore education funding, only to be disappointed. “I want them to get off their butts and do something.”

At the state Capitol, thousands of people converged, chanting and carrying signs with slogans including: “Don’t make me use my TEACHER voice,” and “STRAIGHT OUTTA SUPPLIES.”

They were joined by students who also feel the impact of dwindling financial support for education. Many schools do not have enough textbooks for students. The tomes are often outdated, tattered and missing pages.

Raylynn Thompson, 16, a top student at Muskogee High, said her history textbook is at least 10 years old — stopping at the 2009 inauguration of President Barack Obama. Wearing red sneakers, she wrapped herself in a blanket on the back of the bus, saying she made the journey because she hopes the next generation of students does not have to suffer through leaky classrooms with shared textbooks.

“For me, school is a big thing in my life, and it’s one of the only things that matters,” the aspiring doctor said. The chronic textbook shortages and deteriorating classrooms make it hard to concentrate, she said. “It’s just making it really hard for me to go school.”

A day before, on Easter morning, another teacher, Kenita Self, closed her eyes and bowed her head in prayer at the nearby Baptist church.

She prayed for her third-grade students, who face a high-stakes reading test this year that will determine whether they advance to fourth grade. She prayed for their futures. And she prayed that she was doing the right thing by not showing up Monday morning, instead joining thousands of teachers at the state Capitol to protest.

“I know it’s the right thing to do,” Self said, standing Sunday in the kitchen of a colleague who hosted an arts-and-crafts sign-making party.

The Oklahoma teacher walkout is part of a wave of protests from educators furious over stagnant wages and cuts to education funding. Teachers in West Virginia won a 5 percent raise after a nine-day strike. They emboldened educators across the country. Several schools in Kentucky were forced to close Friday as teachers left classrooms to head to the statehouse to protest school pension changes. Arizona teachers, who have been protesting at the state Capitol, threatened to strike, demanding a 20 percent raise and restoration of funding cuts.

The cuts in Oklahoma also had dire consequences for schools. Districts have not been able to maintain buildings, so students shiver through the winter in classrooms with faulty heating and become accustomed to a rotating cast of teachers. Many school districts have moved to four-day school weeks because they cannot afford to keep the lights on for five days.

Adjusted for inflation, the amount the state spends per student has fallen nearly 30 percent over the past decade, according to the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

After lawmakers this year again cut the education budget, a fed-up superintendent began polling his colleagues to see whether they would be interested in backing a strike. Then, inspired by West Virginia’s educators, teachers in Oklahoma — who in 2016 made less money on average than their counterparts there — began planning their own walkout, organizing on Facebook. Teachers demanded a $10,000 raise for themselves, a $5,000 raise for other school workers and an additional $200 million in education funding.

The movement has pushed people like Self — who described herself as quiet and has never participated in a protest — to the front lines of the battle for school funding. About a dozen teachers gathered at the home of Jami Cole, a third-grade teacher at Horace Mann Elementary, and curled up on a plush sectional sofa and on the carpet, huddling over posters and expertly tracing letters with glitter glue.

Cole said she was devastated last week when lawmakers — pressed into action by the threat of a statewide teacher strike — passed a bill that fell far short of teachers’ demands: a $6,000 raise for teachers and about $50 million in additional funding for schools. Then, lawmakers sought to repeal a tax increase on hotels that is critical to the funding increases, according to The Oklahoman.

She watched the drama unfold on television, broadcast live from the statehouse by a local news station.

“It just broke my heart,” Cole said. When the bill passed, she broke down crying. “We were dejected and disheartened. . . . now I’m just angry.”

Many teachers, like Cole, remain dissatisfied with the bill signed into law by Gov. Mary Fallin (R). Alberto Morejon, the 25-year-old middle school social studies teacher who started a Facebook group to organize the walkout, said the movement in the state legislature is evidence that the walkout is working.

“They had to make us go to the extreme and now they’re just trying to throw a Band-Aid on it and it’s just not going to work,” Morejon said.

Craig McVay, superintendent of El Reno Public Schools, said he left it up to teachers to decide whether they want to walk out. He shared anecdotes of teachers working second and third jobs — including a music teacher who drove to Oklahoma City to work at an Olive Garden after a full day at school.

Teachers, he said, have grown deeply distrustful of state lawmakers who repeatedly pledged to give them a raise and to restore cuts to education but failed to do so.

“It’s just really an ugly time. I really believe it’s going to get uglier,” McVay said. “It’s going to get a little Western out there.”

On yellow poster board, Self used shiny sticker letters to write “MY KIDS ARE WORTH IT.” Around the letters, in smaller print, she wrote the names of all of her students: Maci, Landon, Jesse and Ava — about two dozen children in all.

She looked down at her creation and tapped the board: “I feel like I have to have a voice for these guys.”

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