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All Hell Broke Out in Oklahoma

I was walking home from my friend G’s house when I noticed the bright-orange cutoff notice on the door.

We had skipped school that day to play Sega Genesis and Super Nintendo, so I was surprised when I looked up from playing “Sonic” to see that it was 3:30 in the afternoon. I hurriedly gathered my things and rushed to beat my mother home from work. She was a third-grade teacher at a local elementary school and usually got home around 4 in the afternoon, so I had to run to make it there before she did.

Perhaps it was her concern about raising a black boy alone, but she had never been shy about public corporal punishment. In fact, she had once given me a spanking in front of my friends from elementary school because, in a fit of 5-year-old fatherless rage, I’d thrown scissors at a little white girl in my kindergarten class.

“You leave those white girls alone,” she’d said as she spanked me, her voice a mixture of concern and panic, filled with fear that these were the early signs of the violent behavior she’d seen in my dad and that needed to be stopped immediately lest she lose me to the same criminal-justice system that had taken him away.

So I knew that if she beat me to the crib, it would not end well for me. Almost out of breath, I stopped dead in my tracks. There was a cutoff notice on the door. Another one.

I knew what to do. We’d been through this before. I had to take the notice off the door immediately, lest the neighbors see, and tell my mom as soon as she got home. She would come in, call Oklahoma Gas and Electric on the phone, call the church and work it out. Somehow she found a way to take care of it every time. I never knew how, but I did know that life was full of these little financial humiliations.

“Why do we get cutoff notices?” I asked her once in a fit of adolescent frustration.

“I take care of you by myself, and teachers don’t make no money,” she replied. “At least not in Oklahoma.”

She spoke those words in the mid-’90s, and they are as true now as they were then.

Oklahoma’s largest school districts just ended a nine-day walkout because teachers were protesting their low pay and the overall lack of educational funding. Further, in an attempt to raise awareness about the budget crisis faced by public school educators, a group of teachers marched more than 100 miles, echoing marches by Martin Luther King Jr. and others, from Tulsa to Oklahoma City, the home of the state Capitol.

Mary Fallin, the governor of the state, went on record and likened the actions of those who participated in the walkout to those of insufferable children, and state legislators were inundated with calls and letters from their constituents because the schools were closed all across the state.

Put simply, all hell broke out in the place where the wind comes sweeping down the plains.

Inspired by the successes of teachers in West Virginia, and seeing the number of talented teachers choosing to work in neighboring states, educators in Oklahoma walked out to put pressure on legislators who have historically been unresponsive to the fact that teacher pay lags behind those in neighboring states.

Public school teachers in Oklahoma are paid $20,000 less than the national average, and though the governor recently approved a $6,100 pay raise, it falls well below the teachers’ demands of a $10,000 increase. Yet, to characterize what happened as only about pay is misleading; there are other things at stake.

Over the last nine years, funding to Oklahoma public schools has been cut over 28 percent, far more than any other state in the country. This has led to larger class sizes, decrepit schools and outdated textbooks.

Many educators have taken to social media to show the tragicomic condition of the materials they are forced to use to educate children. I vividly remember how my mother, though struggling to provide for me on her own despite having an undergraduate degree and a graduate degree in education, would go to Walmart at the beginning of the school year to buy classroom materials so that she could adequately teach the children in her class.

If teachers are still coming out of their already underpaid pockets to supplement the needs of the students in their classrooms, then their demands were not only reasonable—they were just. Budgets are moral documents. They show institutional priorities. And the budgets of Oklahoma lawmakers are not just immoral, they are insulting.

To begin the steps necessary to remedy what has gone wrong in the state, teachers were asking for a repeal of a capital gains tax exemption, which, if passed, could bring in more than $100 million in revenue. They also wanted $200 million over three years to restore educational funding that’s been cut in the years since the 2008 recession.

There was wide support for the teachers in the state—but they were not able to make much headway with legislators, and the Oklahoma Education Association called off  the walkout:

Despite tens of thousands of people filling the Capitol and spilling out over the grounds for nine days, we have seen no significant legislative movement since last Friday. OEA leadership has been negotiating in good faith with the House and the Senate, but Senate Republicans won’t budge an inch on any more revenue for public education. They say they don’t believe Oklahoma students need more funding. They’re wrong. Lawmakers are simply refusing to cross the finish line.

No matter what, I am proud of happened here. I’m proud of Oklahoma. The walkout was not only about pay raises, but even if it had been, educators were right to walk out of the classroom and shut down education in the state for close to two weeks. No one should have to worry about providing basic necessities just because they choose to be an educator in Oklahoma.

Teachers deserve a living, saving wage. To refuse that is to only pay lip service to the promise of America.

More articles by:

Lawrence Ware is a professor of philosophy and diversity coordinator for Oklahoma State University’s Ethics Center. He can be reached at:  Law.writes@gmail.com.

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