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.”
Osburn, in a smart blue suit, a bowtie, and glasses, responded to their pleas by talking up the “monumental step” lawmakers had just taken, raising taxes to pay for teacher compensation. “For the first time in history we were able to increase some taxes to pay for some of this,” he said. “We basically caught lightning in a bottle last week.”
Then he posed what he called “legitimate questions” to the two teachers. “I’m invested in this, I believe in a strong education system,” he said. “But…where do we get more, where does it come from? I really need ideas.” Raising taxes is extraordinarily difficult in Oklahoma, where a provision voters added to the state Constitution decades ago requires a simple majority to lower taxes but a supermajority to increase them.
“This is how teachers have felt for 10 years,” Potts calmly responded, explaining that she and her colleagues have been forced to make the impossible possible, keeping their students’ education going in the midst of untenable and unending funding cuts. “You’re going to have to do what we did.”
Osburn may have found out that it’s rarely smart to go head to head with a teacher, someone who spends weekends preparing lessons, knows how to read an audience and tame a crowd, and is skilled at convincing wary students to buy what they’re selling. The teachers in Oklahoma came to their capitol prepared with an agenda—according to talking points the Oklahoma Education Association, the state’s largest education union, gave teachers, they want the legislature to fill the $50 million revenue hole created by last week’s repeal of the hotel/motel tax and find other sources of stable, long-term revenue to fund classrooms—and a sea of clever signs.
Still, Osburn’s stance is a good example of what teachers in Oklahoma are up against. In theory, he’s on their side, proudly posting his voting record on education issues on the door to his office and hanging a sign beside it saying he supports teachers. But even he dug in his heels against the notion that more can be done.
Teachers are not backing down. They showed back up in the same—if not larger—numbers on Tuesday morning, focused on flooding the inside of the capitol building. By 9:45 am the capitol had reached capacity and entry slowed to barely a trickle. Teachers stuck it out in line, enduring 25-mile-per-hour winds, for hours to get inside. Once in, they packed the galleries of the legislative chambers during their respective sessions, yelled and clapped just outside the chamber doors, chanted “We’re not leaving,” and sat on the floor when threatened with removal. They repeated the action on Wednesday and promised to return Thursday morning even after the House approved a $20 million increase in the Internet sales tax.
“We’re in it for the long haul,” said Dawn Brockman on Monday evening. Brockman is a petite woman with well-coiffed brown hair and piercing blue eyes who has taught student council for 11 years in Norman Public Schools. “Our feeling is that we want to die on this hill if we have to. So we’re staying out as long as it takes to get what we want.”
“We’re not going to stop until it’s funded,” said Christy Fitch, a fourth-grade teacher at Sullivan Village in Lawton as she waited in line to get into her state capitol on Tuesday morning. “We’re going to come back as long as it takes.”
Teachers were adamant that while they appreciated some extra money in their paychecks, their fight is also about putting more money in their classrooms. “A lot of people perceive us up here asking for a raise,” said Deborah Hill, who retired two years ago after teaching science for 30 years in Norman and was working the table where teachers looked up lawmakers’ offices. “We got a raise. What we didn’t get was funding for our students.” The state is still in a deep hole after years and years of education cuts, cuts, said Hill, that have left students stuck with history textbooks so old that they say Bill Clinton is president and have no covers, and classrooms so crowded that teachers have moved their desks into the hallways. And even the raise they got, she argued, is likely not enough to keep teachers from leaving the state for better pay elsewhere, let alone attract new ones.
Oklahoma has been cutting school funding for years: It has fallen by over 28 percent over the last decade, one of the largest drops in the country, and a recent $2 per-pupil increase was no match for the $1,058 cut per pupil over the nine years prior. Teacher pay has similarly languished at the bottom of national lists. In the same time period, the state’s educational outcomes have slipped significantly; it dropped to number 46 in the nation on Education Week’s most recent annual ranking, down from number 17 in 2011.
But recent budget cuts, coupled with failures to fix the problems, have intensified the pain. Voters rejected a ballot measure in 2016 that would have increased sales taxes to create a fund for education, and in February a legislative package that would have raised taxes on energy and tobacco to do the same failed to get a supermajority in support.
“It’s gone from a bleed to a hemorrhage,” Hill explained. “Teachers are pretty good at rallying…but morale of teachers has hit a low.” Now students are feeling the effects, she said. “The message from the state is: You don’t matter,” she said. “When you hurt their kids, [teachers] will say, ‘Enough.’”
Jessica Lightle and her husband Jason traveled two and a half hours to reach Oklahoma City. The school building she teaches in is literally falling apart. “Our foundation is actually eroding away from us,” she said. “Tiles falling away from ceilings.” The technology textbooks she uses are from 1999, when “Windows 98 is the brand new thing,” Jason pointed out. The local community chips in to foot the bill to have hallways painted because the school can’t afford it on its own. “We’re running out of resources,” Jessica said. It’s “a state emergency.”
Jason is only in his second year of teaching, but he noted “it didn’t take long to get fed up.” He added, “I didn’t choose the activist life, circumstances pushed me into it.”
Both of them have second jobs, but they’re still planning to spend a week in the state’s capitol to push for more school funding. “We’re willing to spend all our savings to fight,” Jessica said.
Machelle Diemart, a high-school English teacher at Tulsa Memorial High School who drove two hours to be at the capitol, said that the funding shortfall had recently gotten even more acute. “The last three years have been horrendous,” she said. Some of her classes have 36 kids in them—so many that there aren’t enough seats, especially since some chairs are broken. She uses her own money to buy pencils for her students.
On top of all of that, she works two extra jobs, teaching online courses and classes at her synagogue, “just to make close to what my husband makes,” who’s a manager at a Stanley Steemer, she said. On a typical day she wakes up at 4:30 am, gets in a 30-minute workout and then goes to school, and then gets home from work at 4, when she starts grading papers until 7. After dinner her husband turns on the TV; she turns to lesson planning or school work for the second master’s she’s working on. She makes about $35,000 a year.
“After three solid years of drastic funding cuts, enough is enough,” she said. “We are just kind of done. I am angry.”
The budget cuts that have fallen so heavily on teachers have now combined with inspiration from striking teachers in other states to push Oklahoma teachers over the edge and into collective action.
“We have to give credit to West Virginia,” said Catherine Wilson, who’s been a high-school biology teacher in Norman Public Schools for 12 years. She and her colleagues had been talking about taking bold action for a couple of years, but they knew that for it to be successful it would need to go beyond their own district and be statewide, which would take serious organizing. The strike in West Virginia last month—which closed schools for nine days and netted teachers a 5 percent raise—gave her and her colleagues the confidence they needed. “Even before they did it, even before they had an agreement, as soon as we heard they were doing it we were like, ‘We could do that too,’” she said. “That really was the spark of hope—we can organize it and we can get it done.”
And teachers are paying it forward. Teachers from West Virginia took to Facebook to post messages of support for the teachers in Oklahoma, and now Oklahoma teachers are posting similar messages for groups in Kentucky, where teachers’ protests closed every school in the state on Monday.
“Even though it looks like small fires, it really is the start of something big,” Wilson said. “We’re not isolated anymore.”
The Oklahoma strike is what’s termed a wildcat strike because the teachers, like those in West Virginia, don’t have a legal right to strike and have been able to walk out only because districts shut down schools in support. But it’s unconventional in other ways: Although the Oklahoma Education Association eventually did get behind the walkout, most agree that the organizing came from the teachers themselves, mainly through social media, not from their union leadership.
“Not only was the union not driving the bus for a while, they were under the bus,” said David Blatt, executive director of the Oklahoma Policy Institute. It took the union about a month to realize it had to get on board with the strike. They realized “they needed to lead the walkout, not get walked on.”
This, too, is an echo of West Virginia, where teachers connected with one another on Facebook and defied union leaders’ call to end the strike on March 1, instead staying out of classrooms to demand more.
Still, no one, including the teachers, is happy when classes are canceled for so long. “This is the last resort,” said Scott Helton, a high-school English teacher in Moore Public Schools. “Nobody wants to do this. I haven’t slept, I’ve been sick to my stomach.” But he and others feel pushed into it. Multiple groups of teachers carried giant pool noodles dressed up to look like straws around the capitol with signs saying, “This is the last straw.” Many students have also stood behind their striking teachers, showing up to the capitol to protest with them.
The militancy of the action is also where its power lies. The last time teachers went on strike in Oklahoma was in 1990. This week, the majority of teachers were once again absent from their classrooms. “There’s a lot of strength in that,” Dawn Brockman said. But she added that she thinks it will take parents’ pressuring lawmakers alongside teachers to get the change they seek. “I think that’s maybe going to be the breaking point,” she said.
Certainly some parents may be frustrated as they scramble to find childcare for kids who would otherwise be in school. But the teachers had support from many others, including some who spoke up at school-board meetings and even joined them to protest. Patty Heine stood in line to look up legislators’ office numbers in the capitol next to Ella Lovelace, a teacher’s assistant with blue hair and a T-shirt with Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin’s face on it that reads “This is why we can’t have nice things.” Lovelace works with Heine’s special needs 11-year-old son, and Heine decided to join the teachers to demand more funding for support staff like Lovelace, who won’t share in the new pay raise. “Teaching assistants especially work for pennies,” she said.
Her son is currently being taught by a permanent substitute because his former teacher moved to Texas, where teachers can make over $5,000 more, on average. It’s been “terribly hard” for him, Heine said. “The substitute didn’t even know his ed[ucation] goals.” But things could get even worse. Without teaching assistants, she said, her son and other special education students would be “warehoused,” sequestered away in separate classrooms, “instead of out learning with their peers.”
Even supplies any student and teacher should take for granted are a challenge: She overheard a teacher say last year that they ran out of toilet paper and didn’t have the funding to buy more. “I’m here for toilet paper,” she said with a wry laugh.
Dawn Brockman is in an easier position than some of her peers: The school board in her district voted Monday evening to close schools through Wednesday and has been generally supportive of the walkout. At a school-board meeting for the district Monday night, about two dozen people stood up to speak, all in support of the action—including teachers, parents, local businesspeople, and even a Baptist pastor who said his support for striking teachers was a matter of faith. The meeting was so packed that it flowed out into the hallways surrounding the auditorium.
One parent urged everyone to be unwavering in their support. “We need to stand strong until what is recommended is fully funded,” she said. “I know many parents like me feel the same way.” Another mother urged the teachers to “hold strong,” adding, “This is important.”
At the end of the meeting, Superintendent Nick Migliorino told the assembled teachers they had his “unwavering support” in the walkout. “We are not going to stop until we get good public education,” he said. “This is just a start, just the beginning of making a difference.”
But other teachers haven’t gotten the same back-up. One superintendent, Brockman said, threatened to fire teachers who called out if he saw them on the news. Another said teachers would be charged $80 a day to pay for substitute teachers to cover their classes. At a three-hour board meeting in Western Heights on Monday evening, teachers were threatened with discipline if they walked out, teachers said.
And yet, Brockman said, by Monday evening both the school with the superintendent who threatened to fire teachers and the school that planned to charge teachers for subs had announced that they would close the next day so teachers could walk out. “To me, that says we’re getting to them,” she said.
“We’ve done enough pep rallies,” she added. “We’ve been to the capitol multiple times in the past years. The pep rallies at the capitol aren’t working.” Now they’ll see whether a strike can finally move the needle.