Four years ago, on spring break, my kids stood with a group of friends and PTA moms at a Tulsa intersection with signs that read “49. is not okay” and “I have 30 children in my class”.
That was a preview of the following month’s two-week teachers’ strike, which became the largest education protest in decades. A crowd of Tulsa teachers literally went to the Capitol. A group of 200 women lawyers dressed all in black went from office to office speaking to lawmakers.
Parents learned what it was like to be blown away by their elected officials. And they learned which ones were open to conversation or downright supportive.
The monumental effort comes after a decade of legislative failure to raise minimum salaries for teachers. It was the steam let off after a buildup of frustrations.
We’re going back in that direction. No significant investment in public education has been made since that strike.
Right now, keeping up with anti-public education bills is playing like a mole. Just when one bad bill seems to be falling, another pops up. Then that other bad bill pops up again.
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Nothing is really over in the legislature until the final gavel falls at 5 p.m. on the last Friday in May. Even then there is always next year.
Despite the results of polls involving statistical tinkering, Oklahoma currently ranks 35th in average starting salary for teachers and 34th in average salary, according to the National Education Association. It’s not at the top of the region, but not last. Texas is even higher.
But the state is No. 46 in per-student spending. This is the figure showing the classroom and school conditions. Nevada, Arizona, Mississippi and Utah rank lower.
This reflects the working environment for teachers and the learning environment for students.
At schools that have active parent-teacher associations and foundations (not all have this support), these groups are asked to fund basic needs such as transportation costs or fees for extracurricular competitions.
Class sizes have not changed and teacher resources continue to lag behind.
Imagine being able to regroup after the pandemic and have a mass training session for teachers on best practices for integrating online learning.
That is not the reality for public schools. Districts strive to fill vacancies and retain the teachers they have.
Staffing has reached crisis levels. Teachers continue to leave the state, drop out of the profession and retire at record rates.
When teachers and staff call in sick or have to take a day off, schools occasionally close because they don’t have enough workers. Replacements are hard to come by, and temps are not a long-term solution.
Emergency certifications, allowing unqualified individuals to teach, used to be rare. Only 32 were approved in 2011. Then the numbers exploded. So far this year, more than 3,400 emergency certifications have been approved by the state.
Oklahoma lawmakers should be talking about possible remedies for improvements. Some states have various loan forgiveness programs for teachers, offer paid internships, or offer other incentives to teachers.
Instead, Oklahoma lawmakers are at odds over how much public tuition should go to private schools. Dubbed parental choice, it’s a not-so-subtle attempt to dismantle public education. It would drain at least $118 million from public schools, hurting rural schools the most and widening the gap between the rich and the poor.
Then there are the culture war issues being lashed out by national advocacy groups over things like critical race theory and misinformation about social-emotional learning.
Just last week, some lawmakers tore up teachers’ unions for automatically deducting fees from paychecks. It just doesn’t actually happen. In Oklahoma, teachers must agree to this revocation, just like with health plans.
Let’s not forget the time wasted trying to ban books and punish librarians. This came from the fear mongering about LGTBQ+ and racial issues. As a parent of teenagers, getting them to read more books is more important to me.
At one point, lawmakers suggested that parents anonymously give $1,000 to their children’s teachers and that another state agency should administer the district schools’ feeding programs. A bill aimed to scrap training for school board members.
This is not what public school parents are looking for in reform and change. Money will always be an issue and we need to figure out how to keep up with those costs.
We want smaller classrooms and need more teachers. We want schools with options for all children, whether they need special education or advanced placement courses. We want more counselors – those who deal with career planning and separate ones who are trained in mental health.
Better coordination is needed between technical schools and local school districts. Extracurricular activities should be available, accessible and supported.
We want less regulation. Completion requirements now include specific completion of the SAT with essay, a CPR test and a financial literacy course. In a few years, graduates will have to pass a citizenship test and complete a series of career modules.
This is in addition to the annual state tests. It is too much.
We are tired of seeing good teachers go, raising funds for basic needs, dealing with onerous government mandates, hearing about the latest nationally fabricated criticism and fighting to get our educators respected.
Four years isn’t that long ago, but it seems like an eternity. Public education needs champions, but until now they have been hard to find in the Capitol.