This Is Why Oklahoma Teachers Are Ditching Their Classrooms Today

Chris Gelardi

Sue Ogrocki/AP

Michelle Manley is an English language development specialist at Linwood Elementary in Oklahoma City. As a teacher in Oklahoma for 26 years, she has seen how her state’s inability to fund its public schools has affected both the quality of education for students and the quality of living for teachers.

She has seen how teachers have had to spend countless hours researching and writing their own curricula because their districts couldn’t afford to purchase any.

She has seen teachers whose spouses make good money provide food and clothing to those who struggle to make ends meet on their low salary.

And she has seen teachers struggle to find ways to pay for critical school supplies – like when she had to crowdfund for money to increase her school’s printing budget.

Manley is one of tens of thousands of Oklahoma public school teachers rallying in front of the state capitol today to demand a raise in teacher salaries and an increase in public school funding. Led in part by the Oklahoma Teachers Association, the teachers have committed to striking until the Oklahoma state government passes legislation guaranteeing a $10,000 raise for teachers, a $5,000 raise for support staff, and an additional $200 million in education funding over three years.

Oklahoma teachers haven’t received a raise in more than a decade. In 2016, the state ranked 49th in the country in average teacher salary, coming in at a just over $45,000 per year, according to the National Education Association. Taking cost of living into account, Oklahoma teachers rank 40th in the country in pay, according to a Tulsa-based local news station.

Spending per student in Oklahoma has fallen nearly 30 percent in the past decade, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Some schools have struggled to keep the lights on and the heat running, causing some districts to move to a four-day week to save money on utilities, according to the Washington Post.

Research indicates that paying teachers well directly benefits students’ education. According to a 2012 analysis of international data by researchers at the University London and the University of Malaga, a 10% increase in teachers’ pay can produce a 5-10% increase in student performance. In 2017, Oklahoma was ranked 47th overall in Education Week’s annual “Quality Counts” report, and received a D-rating in “K-12 achievement.”

The roots of the funding gap

In Oklahoma, part of the challenge for schools has been ensuring funding for teacher pay, classroom expenses, and other needs despite tax regulations that make it hard to increase revenue.

Public school funding woes in Oklahoma can be traced back to 1992, when anti-tax advocates successfully pushed to require a supermajority (three quarters of the legislature) to pass any new state taxes, according to the New York Times. This has meant that the state must pay for desperately-needed instructional expenses like teacher pay and supplies with dwindling resources.

This predicament is not unique to Oklahoma. Across the country, 13 states require a supermajority to pass state taxes, which has impacted education funding, the New York Times reports.

Low pay for public school teachers in the United States has been a controversial topic for decades, and even more so since teacher pay hasn’t kept up with the nation’s economic recovery since the 2008 financial crisis.

In West Virginia, where teachers won a modest pay increase by staging a statewide strike, teacher pay has dropped 11.2% since 2009 when taking inflation into consideration, according to a Vox analysis of data from the National Education Association and the Economic Policy Institute. In Oklahoma, it’s dropped 15.3%.

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On top of lesson-planning, curriculum-building, and teaching, it’s common for teachers in Oklahoma to work second, third, even fourth, fifth, or sixth jobs in order to make ends meet.

Manley says that she enjoys working extra hours tutoring after school and teaching summer school courses, but funding for those programs isn’t available every year, so she often has to find other work to supplement her teacher salary. In the past, she’s flipped burgers and served beer at a golf course and worked part-time at a department store.

“Fifteen years ago, I could take a vacation,” she said. “I had money in the bank. Today, I don’t.”

Brain drain

One of Manley’s biggest complaints about Oklahoma’s lack of public school funding is that it drives away talented teachers. All Oklahoma teachers have to do to get five-digit raises is move to any of its four bordering states. For example, last year, Oklahoma’s “Teacher of the Year” moved to Texas for better pay.

There’s such a shortage of teachers willing to take on the financial burden, the state currently employs around 2,000 teachers who had to undergo emergency certification.

“There is always a budget cut every year. It gets oppressive to have to have that happen every year,” Manley said. “We should be able to keep qualified educators.”

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Change is coming

That sense of oppression is why teachers in Oklahoma and around the country are taking the cause of funding into their own hands. Today, teachers in Kentucky are also holding rallies demanding better funding, and Arizona educators have been playing with the idea of staging a walkout of their own.

“This is a movement,” Manley said. “We all kind of became activists in trying to stop what’s happening with education.”

In Oklahoma City, Manley says that her community has been largely supportive of the teachers’ activism. She claims that local businesses have offered free food to striking teachers, and parents have joined in on rallies. Other Oklahoma public employees have also planned their own walkouts to demand better funding for their industries.

Oklahoma City Public Schools and local community organizations have also made sure to take care of the students during their day off. Free lunches are being provided at more than 100 locations around the city, and rec centers have offered free all-day camps for kids.

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There has been little indication whether the strike will last more than one day. Last week, Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin signed a bill into law that gave teachers a one-time $6,000 raise and increased school funding by $50 million – a quarter of what the teachers asked for – but educators have decided that that is not enough.

“We love our state. We love our students. We want to work with the kids,” Manley said. “But they have to fund education.”