Nothing Here to See. Go On Home.

We all benefit from good public schools; why do legislators not seem to realize this?

The kids are back in school after the teacher walkout, and what has been accomplished? Even though state lawmakers passed a $6,100 pay raise for teachers and a hike of $1,250 for school professionals, it could hardly be called a victory, especially for the kids. Leaky buildings, battered and outdated textbooks, large class sizes and dilapidated furniture remain the reality for Oklahoma school children. Teachers asked for $200 million to address the crisis, but only got an increase of $50 million.

Governor Fallin underscored the disrespect for teachers that many lawmakers share by calling them teenagers who want a better car. Tell that to the teacher who works the checkout stand at my local grocery store on weekends so she can make ends meet, Gov. Fallin.

Last Sunday, my church was handing out Feed My Sheep bags. These bags are used for specific needs around the community – items for the Day Center for the Homeless or Emergency Infant Services and the like. Last week they were targeted for the food pantry at a nearby elementary school, not just for students and their families, but also for teachers at the school who don’t have enough money to buy food.

I’m glad that teachers received a much-needed raise, but it felt more like a concession on the part of lawmakers to get the pesky teachers, parents and kids out of the Capitol building more than an actual solution to chronic underfunding of schools. Oil lobbyists aren’t nearly as noisy, and they come with money for lunches and tickets to Thunder games.

Teachers asked for a plan over the next few years to raise salaries and provide funding for schools, but what they got was a thrown together ragbag of dollars for this year with no promise of anything to sustain those raises or to sustain public education in the future, for that matter.

Why is it that Oklahoma, and many other states, can’t seem to come up with a sustainable plan for public education? Public schools in the United States must take anyone who walks through their doors. We all benefit from good public schools. Parents want good schools; they want their children to be educated in safe environments by qualified teachers. What happened to the concept that collectively we, as citizens, are willing to support the greater good? What better institution to support than our public schools?

Oklahoma is part of a wave of protests popping up around the United States. Educators are beaten down from years of cuts, and parents are beginning to notice the effects when their kindergartners are in rooms with 30 other 5-year-olds, when their teens can no longer take foreign languages, art or AP classes, when their elementary school-aged children are attending school only four days a week. Tomorrow, teachers in many districts across Colorado are walking off the job to call attention to the same years of underfunding that we’re dealing with in Oklahoma.

Part of the problem is that public education has been hijacked by a well-financed “reform” movement that perpetuates the misguided notion that schools are failing, and that teachers are the problem, so some lawmakers can tell themselves that “throwing money at the problem” will not improve outcome. Do schools need help? Yes, especially schools in poor and urban areas. But, what that “help” looks like depends on who you ask. Professional educators and administrators can tell you that small class sizes, support, materials, a collegial environment, professional autonomy and wrap-around and special services for students who need them can go a long way to improve schools. All of that requires money and effort – and vision. What do we want our schools to look like? This school in Chicago, described in an article in Illinois Newsroom  is indicative of a trend across the country. Is this the best way to educate students? Would wealthy parents send their children to such a school?

I mention this because there is a lot of money in the movement to privatize, charter-ize and “reform” public education, and that is behind a lot of the pushback from teachers and parents across the United States ( who still believe in public schools with democratically elected school boards, respect for students and teachers, and transparency. Across the country, we’re seeing more teachers, more parents, and more citizens who are fighting for small class sizes, less high-stakes testing, for keeping schools open and improving them rather then closing them to open a charter school next door, for supporting professional teachers and administrators, not people who have been trained in a few short weeks. As we saw with the walkout in Oklahoma, there are many, many citizens who are using their democratic power to respectfully demand that our policymakers do what they were elected to do, and support the function of public schools in a democratic society.

If you went to the Oklahoma State Capitol, what was your experience? How will you vote in November, and how will you know who to vote for?

Categories: Editor’s Blog