Growing up in a poor family in northeast Oklahoma, Scott Helton decided what he wanted to be while still in high school. “I had a slew of really, really, really good teachers that loved me and took care of me like I was their own kid,” said Helton, whose boyish face could still be mistaken for that of a student. He recalled one English teacher in particular who would stay late and talk to him. “That was the moment when I realized: ‘I want to do this—forever. I want to do for kids what she’s doing for me right now.’”
He also wanted to teach in his home state. Now, perhaps, that decision seems foolhardy.
When Helton started teaching high-school English 10 years ago, his biggest classes had about 20 students. This year, they had from 30 to 35 students, with one that nearly reached 40. And yet his classroom is designed for only 30 students. “If everybody’s there on the same day, they’re either sitting in stand-alone chairs, or they’re going to lean against the wall, or they’re going to sit on the ground,” he said. Many of the desks are already broken.
To save money, Helton’s school recently opted to use online textbooks instead of buying individual copies. But the school doesn’t have enough computers, or even decent Wi-Fi, so he has to print the pages out. Yet there’s not enough copy paper. “It’s just this constant cycle,” he said.
Helton is clear about what started the cycle: Oklahoma’s rock-bottom education funding, the result of tax cuts that ate into the state’s revenue. “This is year eight of the Fallin regime,” he noted, referring to the current Republican governor, Mary Fallin, “and every year it’s gotten worse and worse and worse.”
Oklahoma isn’t typically a big-spending state, even under Democratic governors. But until eight years ago, Democrats held most statewide offices and maintained some power in the Legislature. Then, in 2010, a number of Tea Party candidates were elected to office. The GOP increased its majorities in the Legislature and, after winning the governor’s race, controlled the entire statehouse for the first time in Sooner history.
Oklahoma wasn’t the only state that got a fresh coat of red paint. Republicans had full control of just 14 state legislatures in 2010, while Democrats held power in 27. After the November elections that year, Republicans held majority power in 25, including Oklahoma.
The newly empowered Republicans didn’t sit on their hands; they got to work implementing an extreme anti-tax Tea Party agenda. But now the damage those decisions have wreaked is becoming abundantly clear—not just in underfunded schools and crumbling infrastructure, but in lagging economies and angry constituents. States are supposed to be the “laboratories of democracy,” in the famous phrase of Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, putting new ideas to the test. But the Tea Party experiment of drastically cutting taxes in the hopes of sparking economic growth has blown up in lawmakers’ faces.