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Fed up with school spending cuts, Oklahoma teachers walk out

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

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 tens of thousands 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, which has fallen 30 percent over the last decade. 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 witnessed 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.”

The walkout in Oklahoma — which could stretch for days — is part of a wave of educator revolts striking states where tax cuts have drained state funding for schools.

In Kentucky, teachers rallied Monday in Frankfort, the state capital, against teacher pension reforms, shutting down schools in a dozen districts. In Arizona, teachers have threatened to strike if they do not get a 20 percent raise and an infusion of money into schools. On Monday, Gov. Doug Ducey (R) said it would not happen, raising the likelihood of a standoff between the two groups.

The job actions in Oklahoma, Kentucky and elsewhere were inspired by West Virginia teachers, who won a 5 percent raise after a nine-day strike, emboldening frustrated educators across the country.

In Oklahoma City, 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.

Oklahoma has faced some of the deepest cuts to education in the nation. Adjusted for inflation, state spending per student has fallen nearly 30 percent over the past decade, according to the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. The result? Oklahoma teachers ranked 49th in teacher pay in 2016, according to the National Education Association, a leading union.

In 2015, Oklahoma spent a little more than $8,000 per student, far below the national average of $11,400. The cuts also took a toll on school budgets.

When their state funding took a hit, administrators trimmed electives, programs for struggling students and money for teachers to buy supplies. Eventually, many were forced to cut positions, pushing class sizes and workloads for counselors higher.

Many schools reduced classes to four days a week because they could no longer keep the lights on for five. The basics that are a given in most U.S. classrooms — textbooks, curriculum materials, staples, printer ink — are often in short supply in Oklahoma schools.

“I came to the Capitol not just for myself, not just for a raise, but for my students,” said Misti Vann, who teaches at Belfonte Elementary in the tiny community of Belfonte. She ticked off a litany of problems that the dearth of funding has spawned: leaky roofs, drafty windows, balky heaters. “My classroom, my books are falling apart,” she said.

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.

It seemed to have worked: Last week, state lawmakers passed a measure increasing teacher pay by an average of $6,100 and giving schools an additional $51 million in funding — with $33 million of that set aside for textbooks.

“I hope they can come up here and say ‘thank you’ on Monday and go back to the classrooms,” Gov. Mary Fallin (R) said at a news conference last week, a remark that infuriated educators.

Instead, many teachers remain frustrated that the state dedicated only $51 million more for schools, which does little to reverse a decade of cuts. And while some said they were satisfied with their raise, they said they will remain out of the classroom until the state boosts funding.

Inside the Capitol, teachers — many wearing matching, custom-made T-shirts — crowded hallways, waiting in long lines that stretched down the corridors to bend the ears of lawmakers. A group of teachers from Sallisaw, near the Arkansas border, packed into the tiny office of state Rep. John Bennett (R).

They lamented how the state had repeatedly shifted academic standards, but without furnishing teachers curriculum guides.

Bennett, who had a stack of New Testaments and a biography of Robert E. Lee on an end table, said he was sympathetic to the teachers’ needs. And though he’s reluctant to raise taxes, he said he will fight to get schools more money. He offered some ideas for how to go about raising additional revenue — rooting out Medicare fraud, for example.

He pledged to push his colleagues to follow through on their promises.

“If they try to reneg on this next year, I’m going to blow this place up,” Bennett told them.

First-grade teacher Dolly Dunlap jumped in: “I’ve got the match.”

Raylynn Thompson, 16, a top student at Muskogee High, said her history textbook is nearly 10 years old — stopping at the 2009 inauguration of President Barack Obama. She is a serious student but said the crumbling classrooms make it difficult to learn. Last week, when her AP U.S. history teacher was going over a lesson on President John F. Kennedy, rain seeped through the ceiling and the foundation. Rather than evacuate as the classroom flooded, the class rearranged some desks and forged on.

Wearing red sneakers Monday morning, 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 and 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.”

The day before Monday’s protest, on Easter morning, 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.

“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.

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

Thousands of teachers across Oklahoma are planning a walkout on April 2, with demands for a higher pay raise and adequate funding for their schools. (Video: Reuters)

The movement has pushed people such as Self — who 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.

She watched the drama unfold on television, broadcast live from the statehouse.

“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.”

Arizona teachers, among the nation’s lowest paid, threaten to strike

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 the job action 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.

The nine-day teachers' strike has come to an end after a bill passed the West Virginia House and Senate to give all state workers a 5 percent pay raise. (Video: Whitney Leaming/The Washington Post)

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.”