In recent decades, public school teachers have become popular punching bags for all that is wrong with America. Critics call public schools “government schools” and “indoctrination camps.” In his inaugural address, President Donald Trump declared that public schools were “flush with cash,” but that they left “students deprived of all knowledge.”
In many ways, the impending teacher strike in Oklahoma is a crucible of the future of public schools in America. More than a movement to raise salaries, the teacher strike is a referendum on respect for a beleaguered profession.
Teachers can change lives and sometimes literally save them, as teachers at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida proved recently when they sacrificed their lives to protect students from the rampage of a well-armed killer.
The research on teacher quality finds again and again that a teacher can make a profound difference in the life of a child. A teacher can significantly enhance students’ sense of well-being, boost students’ future earnings, increase the likelihood that they will participate in democratic processes, and help build connections in the brain that last a lifetime.
The current 2019 U.S. budget proposal cuts more than $3 billion in professional development funds for teachers. It eliminates the 21st Century Community Learning Centers Program, which serves students and teachers in high-poverty schools, and abolishes Title II, which includes Teacher Quality Partnership grants that link teacher-preparation programs with high-needs schools.
The federal government’s hostility toward teachers in public schools, particularly in high-needs public schools, is nothing new. The National Education Association repeatedly asked President Barack Obama’s secretary of education, Arne Duncan, to resign because it considered the administration’s federal policies harmful to both teachers and public schools.
The impending teacher strike in Oklahoma is a crucible of the future of public school teachers in America.
“The American view of teachers lay in our history,” Dana Goldstein observes in her 2014 book, The Teacher Wars: A History of America’s Most Embattled Profession, “and perhaps had something to do with the tension between the sky-high hopes for education as a vehicle for meritocracy and our perennial unwillingness to invest in our public sector, teachers, and schools included.”
On “60 Minutes,” earlier this month, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos told reporter Lesley Stahl that the government has “invested billions and billions and billions of dollars” and seen “zero results,” which seemed to implicate teachers as part of the “problem.” Last year, DeVos criticized teachers as being in “receive mode,” after a school visit. “They are waiting to be told what they have to do,” she later said in an interview about that visit.
Somehow, in the midst of a tsunami of hatred against public education, West Virginia teachers won their recent strike over poor pay. Despite threats from legislators, teachers obtained a modest raise of 5 percent, which should defray some of the staggering increases in health costs, but not pull West Virginia out of the bottom 10 states when it comes to teacher pay.
In fact, teachers in Oklahoma get paid much less than teachers in West Virginia did pre-strike. They have not had a raise in 10 years. Oklahoma is 50th in the country in average teacher salary, 49th in funding per student, and 50th in capital expenditures per student. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, Oklahoma leads the nation in reductions in per-pupil expenditures since 2008.
Dismal rankings notwithstanding, Oklahoma’s legislature has continued to turn its back on public education in shocking ways. Last year, in the midst of a billion-dollar budget shortfall, the legislature considered new voucher laws that would have redirected hundreds of millions of dollars to private schools. At the last minute, the legislation was withdrawn, perhaps because of the scarcity of private schools in the state—96 percent of Oklahoma’s 700,000 children attend public schools.
Oklahoma has reduced funding for education as it has slashed income taxes for the state’s wealthiest citizens. In an illogical move, the state cut taxes on oil production from 7 percent to 2 percent in 2014. This was a painful cut and hurt the state deeply. And, then, last year, Oklahoma—much to the embarrassment of many—reduced its school week to four days in order to make ends meet. It doesn’t take much to understand why there would be a mass exodus of teachers across state lines.
Oklahoma has one of the lowest rates of union membership in the nation. Like West Virginia, much of the state’s population is poor and many live in rural areas. In Oklahoma, which has survived battles with the Dust Bowl, innumerable tornados, and crooked politicians, a strike is an anomaly. The state is populated by proud, no-nonsense, hardscrabble survivors.
In general, Oklahomans are proud of their public schools. In many parts of the state, public schools are still the cultural, recreational, and social anchors for the community. A recent poll by the Oklahoma Education Association found resounding support for teachers; 85 percent of those surveyed believed teacher pay was too low. The Facebook page “Oklahoma Teacher Walkout—The Time Is Now!,” which supports a teacher strike, earned more than 50,000 likes in a week
Some of the largest school districts in the state, including Tulsa, Norman, and Oklahoma City have proclaimed support for teachers, even if they walk out. In a letter to parents, Sean McDaniel, the superintendent of the Mustang public schools (about 20 miles southwest of Oklahoma City), said that administrators were “100 percent committed” to supporting teachers.
According to McDaniel, “No one will be subjected to disciplinary consequences for walking out of school in protest of the legislature’s failure to provide a pay raise to teachers along with inadequate funding for public schools.”
While a teacher raise has garnered overwhelming public support, generated widespread agreement among school superintendents, and received backing from the governor and the state superintendent of education, the momentum might not be enough. Oklahoma’s legislators, like legislators in every state, must decide if teachers and public schools still matter.
A version of this article appeared in the March 21, 2018 edition of Education Week as The War on Teachers Comes to Oklahoma