Democracy Dies in Darkness

Education

Oklahoma governor compares striking teachers to a ‘a teenage kid that wants a better car’

April 4, 2018 at 2:25 PM

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Saying they've been pushed to their limit and are fed up, Oklahoma teachers are walking out over school spending cuts. (Dalton Bennett/The Washington Post)

OKLAHOMA CITY — Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin (R) is under siege after she compared striking teachers converging on the state Capitol to rally for education funding to “a teenage kid that wants a better car.”

Her comments, in response to a question from CBS correspondent Omar Villafranca, came amid a teacher walkout that has closed schools across Oklahoma for hundreds of thousands of students. Teachers began rallying at the Capitol on Monday and have returned each day since. Wednesday, the building was so packed that state troopers shut entrances.

“Teachers want more,” Fallin told Villafranca on Tuesday. “But it’s kind of like having a teenage kid that wants a better car.”

Related: [‘It just hurts my heart’: Low pay, big classes are the plight of Oklahoma teachers]

The governor also told Villafranca she was skeptical the teacher walkout was a homegrown movement, saying she suspected outside groups, including Antifa — short for anti-fascist — were involved.

“Yeah, I would say 100 percent no,” said Alberto Morejon, a middle school teacher from Stillwater, Okla., standing in the shadow of the Capitol on Wednesday morning. He created a Facebook group that drew tens of thousands of members and became an organizing vehicle for the walkout. “I don’t even know who they are. What is Antifa?”

Related: [Education Fed up with school spending cuts, Oklahoma teachers walk out]

The Oklahoma Legislature was in session Wednesday, but it did not appear that lawmakers were considering measures regarding school funding.

Sharee Davis, a 36-year-old high school math teacher in an Oklahoma City suburb, stood outside the Capitol on Wednesday holding a sign that said, “Auction the necklace” — a reference to reports that Fallin was wearing a high-priced necklace during a bill signing last week.

“I feel like she disrespects us every day,” Davis said. “I’m going to make a little stab since she has been disrespectful for so long.”

Adjusted for inflation, Oklahoma schools have lost about 30 percent of their funding over the past decade. The state’s teachers are among the worst paid in the nation and about 20 percent of the Oklahoma’s school districts have moved to four-day school weeks because they can no longer afford to keep the lights on for five. Schools have been unable to purchase textbooks or make repairs — many students have to share tattered textbooks that are missing pages.

In 2016, Oklahoma ranked 49th in teacher pay. The average compensation package of an Oklahoma teacher was $45,276 a year, according to the National Education Association, a figure that includes a high-priced health plan and other benefits. That’s far less than educators in neighboring states, making it difficult — for many districts, impossible — to find and keep qualified teachers.

Last week, faced with the threat of teachers going on strike, state lawmakers approved increasing salaries for educators by an average of $6,100 a year and for support staff by $1,250 annually. The measure also included an additional $50 million for classrooms. Fallin signed the bill for teacher raises last week, and the bills for support staff raises and classroom funds Tuesday. But teachers — who had demanded a $10,000 raise and $200 million in general education funding — said it was not enough.

After the bill signing Thursday, Fallin said at a news conference: “I hope they can come up here and say ‘thank you’ on Monday and go back to the classrooms.” The remark infuriated educators.

Many teachers said they are satisfied with the salary increase. They came to the Capitol because they said the additional general education funding is inadequate. It will not be enough to replace all of the outdated textbooks in the state, or for schools to move back to five-day school weeks, they said.

“We’re not interested in a better car,” said Jami Beshear, a middle school special education teacher in Oklahoma City. “We’re interested in our students having a better future.”


Moriah Balingit is an education reporter for The Washington Post, where she has worked since 2014. She previously covered crime, city hall and crime in city hall at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

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