Coffee in OKC:
Finding Hope in the 2018 Oklahoma Teacher Walkout
One fateful day in the late ’90s, as we were bumming around a thrift store, a weathered old board game caught Justin’s eye. Across the front of its black box in green letters was its imperative, owing to Malcolm X: “Beat the system by any means necessary.”
The premise was intriguing. It was a cooperative game, meaning you played together with the other players against the game itself, designed to teach players about the struggles of black Americans trying to overcome a social system rife with oppression.
We played the game probably ten times before a controversy arose as to whether the game was even winnable. Eventually, we threw in the towel, concluding that the game’s purpose was to demonstrate how pervasive systems of oppression are. We have spent many an hour since then attempting to deconstruct the lessons of that game, the obvious one being that we can never stop fighting for racial equality because that fight goes so much deeper than modern Americans would like to think it does. In a world where a black teenager is shot at for asking directions and two black men are arrested for waiting to order at Starbucks, I can’t begin to wrap my head around the minefield of oppression and discrimination people of color face constantly, although I think it’s important to continue to try.
But the game also held a second lesson: whether the fight is for equality of race, gender, sexuality, ability, belief, or socioeconomics, oppressive power structures are so heavily insulated and run so deep they can seem impossible to take down.
This lesson was reinforced for me firmly during my experience at the state Capitol building during the 2018 teacher walkout.
Before the walkout, I had been gradually coming to terms with another truth: I can no longer afford to keep my job. I always expected going to college would mean I could earn a good wage, enough to buy a nice home, go out to dinner occasionally, enroll my kids in martial arts. In 2005, I worked as a teacher’s aid for Tulsa Public Schools making $10 an hour. 13 years later, the starting pay for support staff in most districts is about $11, despite the fact that rent, gas, groceries, and clothing costs have dramatically increased.
Despite my graduate-level education, our combined incomes still fall below the poverty level for a family of five and are barely enough to cover rent, utilities, groceries, phones, Internet, gas, debt, and medical expenses. It is an exhausting way to live, and there is no reprieve in sight.
About three months ago, I broke a tooth. I did not want to worry Justin, so I never told him. Two months later, the side of my face had begun to throb constantly until eventually, I ended up in the emergency room with an infection. The resulting root canal cost more than $600 after insurance. Over the past year, I have come to the heartbreaking realization that as much as I love working in education, my job as an uncertified support staff is fast becoming a luxury my family can no longer afford. I felt like I was abandoning the students, but my own children deserve better, and my abilities, education, and experience are worth much more than poverty-level wages.
I had already decided next year would probably be my last year in education when Union teachers first met about walking out, giving me hope. If our wages caught up with the cost of living, I might be able to remain in education doing what I love.
Of course, the wages of support staff were just part of it. Teachers are underpaid as well, especially for their education levels. They are highly skilled degreed professionals who are expected to live at unskilled wages. But if that’s not enough for you to support paying teachers more, the fact that we are losing teachers faster than we produce them should be.
Every time we lose a teacher to another state or another field, the value of an Oklahoma education depreciates. Factor in the outdated textbooks, broken desks, ancient heating and cooling systems, four-day school weeks, and general lack of funding, and the situation is dire. It also disproportionately affects the socioeconomically disadvantaged. Our greatest natural resource could be our workforce, but we have to invest in education to see that come to pass.
The Last-Ditch Effort
Things moved quickly over the next month; Alberto Morejon started a Facebook group that quickly grew to more than 70,000 members; students buzzed with rumors and questions; districts lined up one by one, ready to walk. As much as I supported what they were doing, the truth is that as uncertified support, staff like myself were along for the ride no matter what happened.
For many of us, a work stoppage represented a last-ditch effort to keep educators from leaving Oklahoma. While the walkout was a burden on some families, it is far less of one than moving to four-day school weeks or the state of education in Oklahoma when our students are unprepared for the workforce and unable to keep pace in college because their classes are overfull, relying on adjunct teachers and emergency certifications (we issued 1,160 in 2017). One of the biggest problems with emergency certifications is that many emergency certified teachers do not view teaching as a permanent career but a placeholder on their career path.
I believe in the power of activism. Historically, work stoppages have led to the end of child labor, safe working conditions, and 8-hour days. If it was just up to workers pleading their case with the powerful forces behind industry, we might all still be working 13-hour days next to our children.
Protesting with Team Tulsa
In a state plagued with feckless legislators, many of whom are tied to the corporate-sponsored bill mill ALEC, known for its anti-education policies, the fact that Oklahoma lawmakers moved so quickly to pass legislation should have been a red flag that their motivations were suspect. Their legislation met only a quarter of the demand for general education funding and support raises, but it provided every bit of the first-year teacher raise ask. It was designed to placate teachers. If they had accepted it, teachers would have looked like all they cared about was their own raises. Because they did not accept it, the legislators were able to frame the conversation such that teachers appeared ungrateful.
It was perfectly skeezy. It was genius.
I spent the first two days of the walkout with my kids. In the past, Noah has had trouble adjusting to change because of his autism, but he has had major breakthroughs in the past year, and after day two, it was apparent that he was completely aware of what the walkout was about and not struggling with it. I called my reps and the governor each day to leave messages.
On the third day, I took the kids to protest on 71st street, where we joined many of their wonderful teachers from Grove. Lucy made her own sign, a drawing of Foxy from Five Night’s at Freddy’s and the words “Yarrr! My mom’s paycheck is scary!” Most of the cars passing down the street honked in support; one man gave us the thumbs down, but he looked like a grump anyway. As I am fond of grumpy men, I waved and told him, “Thank you!”
Lucy was very proud of her sign.
By Thursday, I was aching to get to OKC. As I crawled out of bed at 5:45 a.m. to board the bus to Oklahoma City, I felt empowered by the solidarity of teachers saying they will fight until support and students are fully funded. I anxiously checked the tie-dye backpack Arthur loaned me a half dozen times.
The sky was still mostly dark when I boarded the bus. I glanced around; everyone I knew was on the other bus. Sitting alone on a school bus full of strangers somehow reminded me of summer camp as a girl, the feeling of smallness and impending excitement.
We were in OKC before we knew it. I’d never been to the Capitol building before. The dome’s grandeur was difficult to discern, obscured in a mess of scaffolding from its current renovations. Past the parking lot, the sidewalk was filled to its outer edges with pop-up tents and canopies, crowds bustling about through them. It reminded me of the parking lot at a Phish concert, all the happy festivalgoers and positive energy. The grounds were buzzing with hope and commitment; it was thrilling. The signs were clever. I walked past a Blues Brother, Waldo, Mary Poppins, a dinosaur. Folks were passing out water bottles, cookies, and coffee.
You already know I had the coffee.
The building was filled to the gills with educators. I ran into Mrs. Oklahoma International Jennifer Fillmore, who is a teacher in Moore, and struck up a conversation when I asked her to take a pic with me for Lucy. She was super legit, like most people in tiaras. I signed in to the governor’s office and had a conversation with one of her sweet little assistants.
Obligatory protest selfie.
Weldon Watson & The Debate Team
One of the history teachers I work with, a highly intelligent, well-informed gal, had told me about a bitter experience with Weldon Watson, who voted against HB 3440 to fund teacher raises in February. She wrote about an exchange which left her fighting back tears, finding him to be condescending and dismissive, at one point telling her she was too young to read a newspaper, referring to the teachers at the Capitol as a zoo, and claiming he could pull up her voting record to see how politically active she was.
Maybe this is why Watson called us a zoo.
He is not my representative, but I wanted to see if I could get anywhere with the guy, so I found myself outside his office where I met a group of student debaters from the Norman North Speech and Debate Team (shout out to Jacob Gray, Bianca Lorenzo Salinas, Lettie Clifton, and Nicholas Bingham) who were waiting to talk to him. These kids were impressive–sharp and determined. Jacob told me, “We are here sacrificing our state competition, and instead of competing and getting qualifications for better colleges, we are here trying to fight for the future of education and fight for the future of Oklahoma.”
They had just come from Republican Majority Whip Rob Standridge, which the team found to be disappointing, noting his reliance on misdirection and logical fallacies.
The students began by asking Rep. Watson to clarify his stance on funding education. When it comes to bills regarding teacher pay, Watson told us, “I have supported every one of them. I have made the observation, much to the chagrin of some in my party, that I would vote for anything we could get to the floor in terms of raising revenue.” This is mostly true; Watson’s record on supporting education is good.
The failure to raise funds for education, Watson told us, lies in the rule requiring a 75% vote to raise taxes.
At first, I found him to be a mannerly, reasonable speaker. But he seemed to dart from one idea to the next rapidly: “If you think oil and gas is the answer, think again.”
A moment later, “Capital gains is not going to go anywhere. I’d vote for it; I’d vote for anything we could get to the floor. But it’s not going to get to the floor.” He referred to the Farm Bureau as the “800-lb. Gorilla” with “a lot of power” that helps keep capital gains from moving forward.
Then it happened. Watson picked up a newspaper from his desk, unfolded it, and told us, “I know you guys don’t read newspapers. You’re too young.”
Then he told us what all of us would continue to hear from every legislator during our time at the Capitol. “The longer you stay out here, the more public support, the more legislative support is going to go away.”
Watson, who is a member of an ALEC task force, also made the case against public schools. “Public education is not doing what it’s supposed to do, properly educating children.”
I would have loved to spend some time unpacking the word “properly.”
He told us he gets complaints all the time from people saying they have to get their children into private schools. Actually, 70% of Americans give their kids’ schools an A or B grade, according to a Gallup poll. 90% of American children are enrolled in public schools.
“But Representative Weldon,” I stopped him. “That is a socioeconomic privilege to be able to send your children to private school, one my children will never be afforded.”
He responded by explaining how vouchers work. On the recording, you can audibly hear my failed attempt to stifle a sigh.
I told him that even if we had vouchers, the better schools would just raise their rates, socioeconomically limiting the opportunity to the more privileged, and even if that were not the case, transportation would be a limitation for many families. Vouchers might also give schools the ability to discriminate against students.
“You did not tell me anything that I don’t already know. In my district, it’s a middle to upper-income type area. In the Tulsa Public Schools system, many of those kids living in apartments, there’s a real attitude in terms of the schools not being able to help them function, and so many of those kids are not being parented. You know what breaks my heart? No parental care and supervision at home. The teacher will say that child is being raised by siblings. Those are the kind of things I’ve seen in my district.”
“But that’s happening because parents are working several jobs,” I interjected. “The fact is we can’t help our kids with their homework the way we need to because we are struggling deeply. Those families living in the apartments? They are barely able to pay their bills. If we want to see that help at home that people are talking about, we can’t put it on the parents. We have to put it on the system where people are required to have a bachelor’s degree for $11 an hour jobs.”
He stepped back fast. “I think you’re misunderstanding me. I’m not saying that it’s the parents’ fault. I’m not blaming the parents. I’m talking about what is in the classroom and that I do see it and I know it’s there and what teachers have told me. That doesn’t mean that every person living in an apartment complex is not taking care of children or is irresponsible, but in some cases, there’s a mother that’s working three jobs, and there’s no dad in the picture.”
We met for 45 minutes. Watson would oscillate between calm, gentle-spoken to a louder, more confrontational tone and back.
I got the feeling he did not expect us to be as informed as we were. He ended by tossing us a real headscratcher: “You need to be out here and you need to be engaging in terms of people you need to talk to…Sometimes, there’s kind of a hostility. Policy-wise, it gets very difficult in terms of having massive numbers of people out here. You’re not really helping your cause. It goes back to the mob deal.”
That weekend, I accompanied my friends from the Oklahoma Equality Center to help feed the teachers walking to Oklahoma City. I admired their commitment; they were beacons of positive energy. But the conversation with Watson haunted me. If even our biggest Republican supporters are tied up with ALEC’s pro-voucher ideology, is there any hope for public education in Oklahoma?
I returned to the Capitol two more times, bringing my family on Monday. Lucy cosplayed as Freddy Fazzbear for the occasion.
The Roe Owens go to OKC
Justin and I met with one of our representatives, Gary Stanislawski (R), kids in tow. Stanislawski was congenial, but it was clear that the Republican Caucus had no desire to continue exploring options outside of what had already been done. He seemed overly optimistic that revenue will continue to pick up and more funding will be available next year.
Feeling dejected, I asked my friend Olivia who we could talk to that might give us more insight into possibilities for funding beyond HB1010. She suggested Representative Jason Dunnington (D), whom she has met with in her work with the LGBTQ community.
Before he arrived, Dunnington’s assistant actually suggested Noah take a stimulation break in the other rep’s office. We are not used to that kind of awareness about autism, and it was impressive.
Dunnington echoed Watson, explaining, “It is the mentality of some in this building that ‘I’ll never vote for tax increases,’ but then they vote for all of the revenue pieces on it. They won’t ever vote to raise taxes, but they’ll vote for all the teacher pay raises. It costs money to pay for things, and as a government, money is taxes. It’s almost like we don’t want to be honest with our citizens and just say, ‘I’m going to raise your taxes. I’m going to raise your income tax. It’s going to cost your family 30 more dollars a year, but we’re going to spend $300 million more dollars on education than we spent the year before.’ I think if you were that clear and that honest about it, most Oklahoma families would go, ‘Great. I’m for it.’ ”
But what can we do?
“Continue having conversations like this one with your neighbors and your colleagues, coworkers, family members, people that you hang out with. This is the kind of civic engagement that will change what Oklahoma looks like. If we had this kind of participation on a regular basis in our government, you’d have a government that you were proud of.”
As we funneled back into the rotunda, teachers were chanting, “We’re not leaving.”
But we were leaving.
On Wednesday, I got a text message telling me that my school’s support staff needed to return to work the following day. On Thursday, when the OEA made the announcement that teachers had voted to return to work, many of my friends and colleagues were divided; some agreed that we were not getting anywhere and needed to find a way to move forward, while others felt hurt and abandoned. On Friday, when many of the districts announced their teachers were ready to return to work, many teachers claimed they had not been asked.
It was like being caught in a current. I felt frustrated, futile. I knew from my experience at the Capitol that many legislators had been waiting us out, and they were right to do so. I also knew that many of them did not care if public education fell apart and had no plans to budge.
It was like the board game: three spaces forward, three spaces back.
Like many educators, I came back with more questions than answers, twisted up in a tangle of melancholy and hope. I am convinced that the only way we can change anything is to turn over the two legislative bodies in the upcoming November election and remove as many legislators connected with ALEC as possible.
As for my family, I am still planning on making next year my last as a support employee, and that breaks my heart. But the walkout and my job are just two rounds.
Round three is in November, and we are playing the long game.