There are myriad ways to read the recent red-state teacher walkouts: a shift toward the left, a redefinition of the right, a resurgence of the pro-labor spirit of the early 20th century. But from the eye of Oklahoma’s storm, it was not a philosophical shift as much as a philosophical expansion—we learned to hold our populist history in tension with the collective investment that good democracy requires.
In a deeply red state where parents have even been known to shield their children from the history of the Murrah Building bombing in our state’s capital, the Oklahoma teacher walkout was a tipping point in the public’s consciousness.
Last month, teachers aired the state’s dirty laundry and received overwhelming public support for their efforts. Civic engagement can be suspect in Oklahoma. We don’t question our elders. We hold back thoughtful questions in fear of seeming indecorous. And we certainly never use the word “organize.”
The loudest political discourse in Oklahoma often balances vitriol on the precipice of “family values”—a complicated dance that shrouds practical considerations, like budgets, in poorly articulated ideological smog and leaves the state’s most vulnerable populations actively neglected.
Last month, teachers aired the state’s dirty laundry and received overwhelming public support for their efforts."
Over the last 10 years, the state legislature has consistently cut funding for education and other core services. More than half of appropriated agencies in Oklahoma are now funded at just 80 percent of their 2009 levels, even before accounting for inflation. During that same period, the state has led the nation in making the deepest cuts to per-pupil funding for education.
Oklahoma’s public school students are among the most vulnerable members of our community. In 2016, 33 percent of Oklahomans under 18 had experienced at least two adverse childhood experiences—the highest rate in the nation according to an analysis by the United Health Foundation.
But even the systematic removal of rights from young Oklahomans—such as recent legislation to allow juvenile offenders to receive life without parole—has never engendered the public outcry and support that fueled the teacher walkout. Such realities have historically been hidden from public view and conversation.
But teachers and students refused to allow their experiences to be hidden. By speaking the truth of their classrooms, they have refuted the narrative created by party politics and local media coverage that public education has become a partisan issue. Many Oklahoma teachers belong to the state’s Republican majority, but while at the Capitol during the walkout they experienced firsthand the deficit between their opinion of education and the policy lawmakers have created.
They shared stories of their common experiences and painted a bigger picture of the state of public education. Across districts and counties, it quickly became apparent that the struggles were the same and were monumental.
Oklahoma Education Association was late to the teachers’ party; a telling mark of the state of civic engagement in Oklahoma. But they helped share teachers’ stories and build public awareness of the state’s education crisis, driving up the number of protesters at the Capitol for two weeks in early April.
It is harder to hoodwink people standing in your office. Teachers, students, parents, staff, and allies arrived at the Capitol, spoke with legislators, and knew firsthand when their legislator voted differently than they said they would. The standard gap between rhetoric and the ramification of votes became clear. Every day brought new opportunities to learn how the state’s government functioned. When advocates learned that a particular state representative was holding up a vote, we saw them start walking the picket line to find constituents from his district who could lobby him directly. People were developing the honest tools of civic participation.
Many teachers carried signs that read: “I was here in 1990. Why am I still marching?!” But for others who did not live through the teacher walkout of 1990, which successfully spurred increased teacher pay and limited class sizes, that consciousness had not spread. After the victories of the 1990 walkout, there was little concerted effort to track legislation and ensure that no similar budget crisis was reached again.
This walkout was different, because students were at the heart of it. Students built advocacy coalitions preparing for future action while their adult counterparts parsed the failures of recent past. Gabrielle Davis, a high school senior in Edmond, Okla., whom we met during student demonstrations on the first day of the walkout, began the campaign with a desire to highlight the experiences of students and clearly articulate how firmly they stood with teachers. Over the next two weeks, she learned to identify those in key positions of power and those who influence them and to leverage media to strengthen her group’s position. She rallied hundreds of students from across the state and helped prepare them to meet with legislators.
When students spoke to large crowds at the protest and to legislators, they were angry, eloquent, and moving. They were neither filtered nor unnaturally enthusiastic. They were honest and authentic. The student leaders of the walkout were perspicacious organizers who could see exactly how 10 years of relentless cuts to public services had maimed schools, disheartened communities, and darkened their futures. And Oklahoma recently passed legislation to include content from the U.S. naturalization test in the state’s standards, thus prioritizing civic knowledge for all Oklahoma students.
But knowledge alone will not sustain such a movement. Students we spoke to during the walkout shared how much they learned by spending time at the Capitol and participating in direct civic action. And once back in the classroom, students that we have been serving through our work at Generation Citizen expressed how grateful they were that it didn’t take the walkout for them to learn how to participate. They already knew from class. Students learn deeply when the realities of their communities and the machinations of their government are directly connected to their classroom experiences.
The honest ferocity of youth, the ability of young people to be attentive and resilient in the face of bureaucratic adversity, and their motivation to see their state truly change is what will make the civic engagement of the Oklahoma teacher walkout last.
The path forward is authentic curricula that invites students to see their community honestly and to address its flaws head on with concrete skills so that students don’t have to wait for their teachers to walk out of their classrooms to have an effective civics education. And if it can happen in Oklahoma, it can happen anywhere.
A version of this article appeared in the May 16, 2018 edition of Education Week as Oklahoma Teachers (and Students) Change Course