Another Bleak Article About Oklahoma’s Public Schools

A recent article from The New Yorker interviews several Oklahoma teachers and provides context to last month's teacher walkout.

As the school year draws to a close, perhaps we should reflect on public education in Oklahoma. We get a lot of negative publicity, most of which is deserved. Parents, we can turn this around if we collectively decide to support public education and demand that our policymakers adequately fund our children’s schools.

Instead, here’s another article about our schools. This one is by Rivka Galchen in this week’s New Yorker. She interviews several Oklahoma teachers, and also provides a good overview of the issues surrounding the teacher walkout, while framing it with some nice historical context.

While teachers were asking for a raise, they were also asking for decent classroom conditions and materials for their students.

The opening paragraph quotes a Booker T. Washington High School teacher:

Craig Hoxie, an Army veteran and a father of two, still teaches physics at Booker T. Washington High School, in Tulsa, though hundreds of teachers have left Oklahoma for other states, in search of better pay. In the past decade, funding for K-12 education in the state has fallen by a billion dollars. In 2017, the Oklahoma State Science Fair was cancelled, until a retired teacher saved it by contributing fifty thousand dollars from his savings. Hoxie often supplies his classes himself, with help from parents, who give him gift certificates to Walmart and Lowe’s. Still, Hoxie told me, “Booker T. Washington is one of the more fortunate schools in the state.” Many schools, as a way to save money on heating and cooling, are open only four days a week.

Galchen illuminates the effects of having a single party stranglehold on the state. When only one voice is allowed to speak, there can be no healthy give-and-take.

Oklahoma has essentially been under single-party rule for about a decade. The state legislature is eighty per cent Republican, and in the most recent midterm elections the Democrats didn’t field a candidate in nearly half the races. Governor Fallin is in her eighth year, and during her tenure nearly all state agencies have seen cuts of between ten and thirty per cent, even as the population that those agencies serve has increased. A capital-gains tax break was configured in such a way that two-thirds of the benefit went to the eight hundred wealthiest families in the state. An income-tax reduction similarly benefitted primarily the wealthy. The tax on fracked oil was slashed, and when it was nudged back up—it remains the lowest in the nation—the energy billionaire and political kingmaker Harold Hamm, whose estimated net worth is quadruple the budget that the legislature allocates to the state, stood in the gallery of the capitol, letting the lawmakers know that he was watching.

The effects of the telescoped budget have been felt everywhere. There is a ten-year waiting list for home or community-based help for the elderly or for people with developmental disabilities. Many rural hospitals have closed. A bill was even passed that limits the gasoline usage of the state highway patrol.

Among the teachers that Galchen interviewed was Mary Barry, who has two hundred and seventy students. Class size is a growing (excuse the pun) problem in Oklahoma schools. Many teachers are relegated to being glorified babysitters in classrooms filled to the bursting point with students who have no desks and no books.

Mary Barry, who teaches English as a second language at Boevers Elementary, in Tulsa, came in. She has two hundred and seventy students, each of whom she is legally required to spend forty-five minutes a day with. She loves teaching, but her school, lacking the resources to hire more E.S.L. instructors, was under “audit.” Barry explained that she is part of the sizable Burmese population in the Tulsa area; six languages are spoken at her school.

Galchen’s article ends with a quote from John Waldron, a Booker T. Washington teacher who is running for office.

John Waldron, a social-studies teacher from Tulsa, had run in 2016, and was signing up to do so again. I asked him if, as he’d knocked on doors, he had found that people knew who their local representatives were. “Most people never get to that chapter in the textbook,” he said, with a small laugh. “But, when you talk to them, they’re interested. We have gotten to see here pure, unalloyed, deep-red conservative government, and we will learn from it. The Okies proved it in the Dust Bowl, that they could learn.” He added, “People say they aren’t interested in politics. But then politics happens to them.” 

When schools are underfunded, it hurts all of us – children, businesses, colleges and universities. How can our young people be “college and career ready” when our lawmakers refuse to fund public schools? And if we want businesses to move to our state, and if we want to keep young, talented people here, publicity like this doesn’t help.

Note: This article appears in the print edition of the June 4 & 11, 2018, issue of The New Yorker with the headline “The Teaching Moment.”

Categories: Editor’s Blog