Hundreds of Oklahoma teachers left their houses in the early hours of Monday morning. But instead of heading into their classrooms, they drove and walked in groups of dozens or more to their state capitol in Oklahoma City, wearing red T-shirts, waving signs, and shouting slogans, forming a giant mass encircling the entire building.
Neither teachers nor Oklahomans are known for being particularly confrontational. But, as many of the teachers I spoke with told me, they are so fed up with the state of education funding that they took the fight straight to their lawmakers.
Last Friday, under the threat of a statewide teacher walkout, state lawmakers passed a bill that raises teachers’ pay by about $6,000 and increases some taxes to generate the revenue to cover it—the state’s first tax increase imposed by the legislature in 28 years. But lawmakers neglected the other half of teachers’ demands: increasing funding for their overcrowded, under-resourced classrooms. So teachers across the state walked out—supported by school superintendents who closed schools, allowing teachers who don’t have a right to strike to be off the job. They are demanding more money for everything in schools, from support staff to textbooks, not just their own paychecks.
Shermie Potts and Jeanine Gully had never been to the capitol to speak to their legislators face to face. The two choir teachers from Edmond, Oklahoma, who wore matching green windbreakers bearing their school insignias and sneakers as they stood in line inside the capitol to look up their representatives’ office numbers, had to ask directions for how to get there.
But Potts was clear and determined when speaking to Representative Mike Osburn once they found his office and he finally showed up to meet with the teachers waiting in his lobby. She and fellow Spanish teacher Carina Chiossi-Plett, from a neighboring Edmond school, could have been teaching a pupil how to understand a difficult lesson as they walked him through their demands.
Potts’s school has had its budget cut every year for the last 10 years, which means she and Gully now have to ask students to pay fees or raise money to participate in activities that are a required part of the curriculum. Chiossi-Plett fulfills two different positions that should each be their own full-time job on top of the unpaid work she does for school committees.
“The needs in the classroom are huge,” Chiossi-Plett told Osburn. “Raises are fantastic, but it does not address the needs in the classroom.”
“We very much appreciate the work you have done,” Potts said. But she told him that the choir program was fully funded when she started, and then every year after that it was cut. “We’ve got to get back up to where we were funding 20 years ago.”