Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said Oklahoma teachers who walked out of their classrooms to protest school funding cuts should “keep adult disagreements and disputes in a separate place.”
“I think about the kids,” DeVos said Thursday, according to the Dallas Morning News. She had been touring a middle school and meeting with leaders of an anti-violence initiative in Dallas. “I think we need to stay focused on what’s right for kids. And I hope that adults would keep adult disagreements and disputes in a separate place, and serve the students that are there to be served.”
Her spokeswoman did not return a request for additional comment.
Tens of thousands of Oklahoma teachers converged on the state Capitol last week, demanding more money for the state’s schools, which have endured some of the steepest spending cuts in the nation.
While the protest began over teacher pay, educators have shifted their emphasis, pressing lawmakers to invest more in classrooms and saying their walkout is in the name of students who are not getting the resources they need to learn.
Children in many districts — including the state’s two largest — have been out of the classroom for five days, and many schools are expected to remain closed this week as teachers continue their fight. Churches, community organizations and even the Oklahoma City Zoo have stepped up to provide child care and to make sure children who rely on schools for meals get food.
The revolt in Oklahoma is part of a wave of teacher protests sweeping the country inspired by a successful teacher walkout in West Virginia. There, teachers pressed the state into giving them a 5 percent raise after shutting down schools for nine days. This month, teachers in Kentucky briefly shut some school districts as they protested pension reforms. Teachers in Arizona, where school funding has dropped steeply, are threatening to walk out unless the state restores funding and gives them a raise.
DeVos also weighed in during the West Virginia teacher walkout as it stretched on in February.
“It’s now day 4 of #WVTeacherStrike. Whether you believe good teachers deserve better pay — I do — and/or states should be fiscally responsible — I do — we should all agree kids should not suffer for adult squabbles,” she wrote on Twitter. “But kids are directly harmed when they are barred from going to school to learn. So I hope both sides in WV come to the table to negotiate a swift resolution and get students back in their schools.”
Adjusted for inflation, Oklahoma spends nearly 30 percent less on schools than it did a decade ago. School buildings are crumbling in many parts of the state, textbooks are outdated and tattered, and about 20 percent of districts have moved to four-day school weeks. Oklahoma teacher salaries ranked 49th in the nation, according to a 2016 report by the National Education Association, a leading teachers union.
State lawmakers buckled under the threat of a walkout last month, raising salaries for teachers by an average of about $6,100, boosting pay for support staff by $1,250 and investing an additional $50 million in schools. But teachers said the extra money for schools was not enough to make up for years of funding cuts, so they walked out last Monday to press lawmakers to appropriate more money for schools.
They were backed by several school leaders, who preemptively closed schools so teachers could protest, and by students, who organized a massive rally Wednesday and joined teachers all last week.
Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin (R) was critical of teacher protesters, who packed the hallways outside of her Oklahoma City office last week. She compared them to “a teenage kid that wants a better car,” a comment that infuriated educators.