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For the past two days, I’ve watched as over 30,000 teachers, students, and families arrived from all over Oklahoma to demand an increase of the education budget and higher wages for teachers and other staff. The sheer mass of people is breathtaking. I planned to livestream the rally, but it was impossible to so much as send a tweet due to the number of people in such a confined space.
Most teachers arrived on chartered buses with dozens of their districts’ co-workers; most of the buses are free, with owners who volunteered their services in solidarity. Both days, the 30,000 teachers packed the lawn of the State Congress, holding creative, funny and heartbreaking signs and setting up tents all around the lawn with food and drinks donated by local businesses and parents. The plethora of donations expresses the deep support that teachers have from the community.
In the minds of legislators, it wasn’t supposed to go this way. On Thursday of last week, they passed a bill that provided a $6,100 raise to teachers but left the demand for an increase in the education budget almost entirely unaddressed. They hoped this would quell the insurgent teachers’ mobilization. They were wrong.
Momentum is not on the side of the legislators. After the West Virginia teachers’ strike, there has been an explosion of teacher organizing around the country but especially in heavily Republican states, dubbing this movement the “Red State Revolt.” In Kentucky, thousands of teachers walked out Monday to protest an unexpected attack on their pension benefits. In Arizona, teachers are starting to organize ‘walk-ins’ in different schools as part of a struggle for a pay increase. West Virginia seems to have awakened an activism that refuses to accept promises or band-aid solutions; teachers want funding for schools, and they want it now.
A few of the teachers who are mobilizing today participated in Oklahoma’s last teachers’ strike in 1990. One teacher, who was holding a sign that read “2018, 1990: I can’t believe I have to do this again!,” said that the previous strike seemed like a win for teachers — raising the education budget and teachers’ pay. “We learned we can’t trust the legislators. Everything they gave us they took away in the years after, and now look at us!” one teacher said. In the past 10 years, the education budget has been slashed by 28%. As Drama teacher Shelly Barryman explained, this means that today she makes $4,000 dollars less than she did 10 years ago.
You may be interested in: An Open Letter to Oklahoma Teachers
Oklahoma teachers, students, and families are furious at the conditions in their schools. Teachers work more than one job just to make ends meet. One sign at the protest read: “My second job paid for this sign.” Many teachers leave their teaching posts in the middle of the year, seeking better jobs elsewhere. Some leave teaching altogether, taking up jobs in the many oil companies in Oklahoma. Others go to Texas, which spurred another popular sign: “All of my exes are in Texas.” There is a huge teacher shortage in Oklahoma, with some classrooms being filled with substitutes with little teaching experience for months at a time. On Monday, at the opening rally, a student explained that her geometry class had 38 students in it and the teacher resigned mid-semester, leaving students with “a revolving door of substitute teachers who were not certified to teach a rigorous curriculum…” Now she takes her math classes online.
The schools are falling apart; black mold, flooding, and walls that are falling in. Textbooks are a big problem: They are old, outdated, and there aren’t enough of them. Joshua Branch told me that at his high school, there were no books; the students were supposed to take pictures of the book to do their homework. At the opening rally, a student showed us her history textbook — a book which was held together by tape and in which George W. Bush was president. As she spoke, teachers around me yelled out “Teachers bought that tape!” This is undoubtedly true, given that schools desperately lack supplies, including everything from paper to tape to paper clips. Rural districts have it worse, and some have even cut the school week to four days.
While this isn’t an official strike, teachers are “calling in sick,” and superintendents are canceling school in most districts. For example, in Guthrie only 36 out of the 219 teachers need to call out sick for the superintendent to cancel classes. The teachers have easily achieved that number every day with about double that number taking the half-an-hour shuttle ride to the state capital every day.
In other districts, where the superintendent is not as friendly to teachers’ demands, it is more difficult to cancel classes. In Western Heights, for example, after Monday’s walkout, the superintendent ignored pleas from teachers, students, and families to keep classes canceled. On Monday, after spending all day at the walkout in Oklahoma City, 200 people showed up to a school board meeting to keep schools closed on Tuesday. The Board voted to open schools in a 4-1 vote, with the superintendent saying that there was “really good funding set aside” for teachers. The school attorney spent almost half an hour in the meeting explaining to teachers that they would be in breach of their contract if they walked out and could be fired. According to a teacher, who wished to remain anonymous, dozens of teachers at her school in Western Heights refused to show up to school and many families kept their kids home from school in solidarity. This included teachers like James White, who said, “I’m angry that I’m told I’ll be fired if I walk out tomorrow. And I’m going to tell you, I’m walking out tomorrow.”
Unlike a traditional strike, this walkout is not organized by any centralized body. There are three teachers’ unions, and the majority of teachers are not unionized. According to Alona Whitebird, this has put teachers in a weak position in negotiations and is one of the reasons that conditions have gotten so bad. However, unions have not always been enthusiastic about mobilizing teachers either. Both the Oklahoma Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, the two largest unions in Oklahoma, had to be forced to endorse the walkout under the threat of a dues strike.
So how did over 30,000 teachers end up in Oklahoma City two days in a row? How is this hybrid of a strike being organized? Facebook and pent-up anger, says middle-school math teacher Mary Robinson. After the West Virginia teachers’ strike, Oklahoma teachers realized they could do the same thing, so overnight they set up a Facebook group, and very quickly dozens of thousands of teachers joined. It was on.
This makes the organizing very grassroots and ad hoc. Each district is organizing differently, and there aren’t any bodies for democratic debate and decision making. Rather, in many districts, leaders emerge organically. When sitting with Bryan Dearing, who is helping to organize his district, several teachers came to check in before leaving the rally. What’s the plan for tomorrow? What’s the plan for the next days? The answer? Come back every day until we get the funding we need. Other teachers said they are getting their information online and via text message.
Prior to Monday, the media was saying this would be a one day walkout and everything would be back to normal on Tuesday. But when I arrived on Monday, none of the teachers seemed to think this was the case. Dozens and dozens of signs express the sentiment that the teachers plan to stay out of school for as long as it takes to get funding. Two teachers who set up a makeshift living room outside the Capitol building with chairs, a table, books, pictures of their kids and a calendar that reads “My April 2018 plans: Walkout until the OK Legislature meets the needs of students, parents, teachers and support staff.” Another held a sign that said “Day 2: Don’t worry, I teach first graders. I am used to waiting on people to listen to me.”
So far, the focus of the organizing has been on convincing legislators. On Tuesday, when I arrived at the state Legislature at 9 am, there was a line that wrapped around the block, waiting for teachers to enter to speak with their representatives. By 10:15 am, it was announced that the building was packed and was in fact, at overcapacity. New teachers would only be able to enter one by one as others left.
So far, many teachers have been frustrated by these discussions. Many members of the Legislature have refused to meet with teachers. Most didn’t even not show up on Monday, a supposed “holiday” on which teachers had to work, but lawmakers didn’t. Local legislators have varied in their reactions. Some have remained silent, while others, like Kevin McDugle, a representative for District 12, seem to have become impertinent in their anger at teachers. In a livestream from his Facebook page, he said “I’m not voting for another stinkin’ measure when they’re actin’ the way they’re actin’…You’re losing support of people who supported you all year long. Now you’re going to come here and act like this after you got a raise?”
After a backlash, he was forced to issue a bizarre “apology” in which he blames “outsiders” for “some of the things that have been happening.” He even claims death threats to the Capitol, an entirely absurd idea given that no one else seems to be concerned about this possibility — not the families with small children outside, not the teachers and not even the security guards roaming around the grounds. Governor Mary Fallin has also perpetuated the myth of outside agitators, claiming that Antifa is at the marches.
Teacher Kathy Ice says, “You can tell we are teachers. We got 30,000 or more people here and there hasn’t been a single fight. A single disturbance.” In fact, these teachers have demonstrated nothing but solidarity and kindness to one another, offering coffee, seats, thumbs up signs and cheers throughout the day. On the first day, a mother lost her 8-year-old son, Ben. The rally was stopped and she got on the microphone to plea for her son to come to the stage, with despair and fear in her voice. How could she find a 8-year-old boy in that sea of dozens of thousands of people? Everyone in the crowd sat down on the floor, in silence, to make it easier to find Ben, who after a few painstaking minutes, was found and brought to his mother. That represents the kind of people in this crowd. Attempts to demonize the teachers, to invent “outside agitators” is a bold-faced lie. These are teachers who, as dozens of signs say “would rather be teaching,” but are fighting for their students instead.
Teachers can see through the lies and clearly point to the privileges of their legislators as a result of these protests. In early afternoon on Tuesday, the legislative session had ended and many elected officials had gone home, only to reconvene at 3 pm the next day. “I get to be at home with my kids 4 hours and in that time I have to do tons of lesson planning. These legislators get to go home whenever they want, just because they don’t want to meet with us. And they get paid at some of the highest rates in the country” said Anna Grecko. She is right; Oklahoma legislators rank 15th in pay. Teachers rank 49th. “How can they know what we go through when they get paid so much?” This was echoed in a sign that read: Mary Fallin, Think teachers get paid enough? Let’s switch paychecks.”
Governor Mary Fallin is deeply rejected and scorned by teachers. She hasn’t even made an attempt at dialogue and has stayed away from the protests. In an interview on Tuesday, she said “Teachers want more, but it’s kind of like a teenager wanting a better car.”
While there is deep indignation with elected officials, the solution provided is to “vote them out,” the same solution offered by the recent protests against gun violence. In fact, on Wednesday, a youth protest in planned in which protesters will wear white t-shirts with the day they turn 18 on their shirt as a warning to legislators.
Yet, there is relatively little talk of whom to vote in. Neither the Republicans nor Democrats are champions of the teachers struggle and both here and on the national level have been involved in cutting education funding and blaming teachers for the dire situation in schools. The Democratic politicians are virtually absent, although on Monday they had a booth and a few signs here and there. Democrat representatives have not come out to meet with teachers in the streets and have not emerged as the champion of teachers’ causes. In fact, many of the cuts began in the early 2000s, created and voted for by Democrats. So, it’s not clear whom Oklahomans should elect, although the attitude is as Mary Robinson says, “anyone is better than these clowns.”
The strategy so far has been to rally at the state Legislature. However, in order to win, the people that teachers need support from are not in the Legislature, they are in the communities surrounding the schools. Only by winning over the unbreakable support of families and the community will teachers be able to impose their will on a Legislature that has cut 28% from the education budget over the last 10 years.
When legislators say there is no money for education, the teachers know this is untrue. Oklahoma is a state rich in gas and oil, in which corporations sometimes pay as little as 1 percent on their revenue. “They say that if we raise taxes on oil companies, the companies will leave, but that’s not true! Where are they going to go? The oil is in the ground!” They know it’s untrue that there is no money every time they look at the Capitol building, which is in the midst of a major renovation
Bryan Dearing says, “It’s like a slap in the face. If they have the money to renovate the Capitol, why don’t they have the money to get the mold out of my school?”