The Ongoing Teacher Walkout in Oklahoma
On March 29, the state of Oklahoma passed a bill to give teachers a $6,100 pay raise and some increase in state funding for schools. The Oklahoma Education Association (OEA), a union with approximately half of the state's teachers as members, demanded that the state find more money to increase funding to the schools after years of cuts due to decreases in state revenue. Teachers walked out, and the students in Oklahoma have been out of school since April 2.
We can debate all day about why Oklahoma is in this mess. Oklahoma is a state heavily dependent on oil and gas and was greatly harmed by the downturn in that volatile industry. Other factors include waste and mismanagement of funds by the government, which have been ongoing in Oklahoma for decades. This isn't a Republican or Democratic issue. This is a government issue.
The level of groupthink and the mob mentality that have descended upon the teachers, administrators, and people of Oklahoma is the most concerning thing about this entire walkout. Teachers are unable to think for themselves and see beyond the demands of the OEA. A teacher friend of mine is afraid that if she doesn't show up at the capitol, she will face serious backlash from her fellow teachers at school. She knows that other teachers don't support the walkout but everyone is too afraid to speak up. If they do, they will be labeled as anti-education.
The attacks on concerned parents as to how this action affects their children is disturbing. One is instantly branded anti-teacher, anti-education, and against the children if you don't support these specific tax increases. I have raised concerns about how this affects graduating seniors, special education students, and low-income families who now have to pay for child care while their children are out of school. I was instantly chastised for my concerns and told that this is a sacrifice some kids will have to make and that it is "for the greater good" and how exciting it is that students are going to be "a part of history." Whenever I hear anyone say anything is for the greater good, I cringe.
The most glaring issue is the fact that the OEA made specific demands for what taxes must be raised. The citizens of Oklahoma voted for the capital gains tax exemption in 2004. Whatever one's opinion about this exemption, it should be alarming to all Oklahomans that a union has specifically targeted it. The OEA stated last week that the strike would end when the capital gains tax exemption was rescinded. The fact that a group of teachers and union members have essentially decided to hold the state hostage to their demands should make one question their true intentions. Oklahomans should question why a group of teachers has decided that it knows what is best for the Oklahoma economy and should act as the deciding force on tax policy.
This has now become a political rally. My school has a Facebook page for the parents, and I follow it daily. The number of political posts and attacks on our state representatives has skyrocketed. Parents are all too eager to lay blame on state legislators and attack them personally for not passing these tax increases that the OEA has demanded. I have reminded parents that there is more to running the state than just education. Although, now that education is taking on over 50% of our state budget, I suppose that it will now be the number-one issue for the legislator. Well meaning parents seem not to understand that to increase the budget for education means cutting the state budget somewhere else or raising taxes.
Notice how eager the masses are to march on the capitol to demand specific tax increases that will harm only some people in our state. (I can argue why the repeal of the capital gains tax exemption could harm the state's economy by driving out businesses to nearby Texas, which doesn't have a state income tax.) It's interesting how no one has suggested increasing sales taxes or creating a personal property tax on vehicles to help fund education. If education truly benefits everyone in our community, then everyone should have to pitch in and expect increased taxes to help pay for it. (For the record, I am against tax increases.) I doubt that many people would be marching on the capitol to have their taxes increased to fund education.
It is interesting how invested some people are in this entire walkout. It's as if they haven't had anything meaningful to do in their lives up until this moment. I realize that our society places a huge emphasis on education and its value. I don't doubt the value of education – I was a teacher, and I have three teenagers. There has been a mad rush to donate funds, food, and supplies to teachers who are camping out at the capitol. Now imagine if more parents and the community had been willing to make donations to their own schools to pay for much needed supplies these past several years. Where were these people when cuts were made to the schools? The march on the capitol has been one big publicity stunt. Parents are encouraged to come down and support their teachers and bring the kids. Kids show up with cute little signs (that their parents made), and parents happily post it to their Facebook pages and say how proud they are of their children for supporting the cause. Keep in mind that most of these children are elementary school-aged. School choirs are singing on the steps, and teachers are crying at the outpouring of love for them. Local restaurants donate food to feed the teachers while they sit on the capitol lawn. It is great to see communities come together and support one another, but when the community fails to see the big picture and question the true issues that have plagued our schools, this is a problem.
An unprecedented level of hero-worship has suddenly descended on the teachers. Teachers can be important to a child's life, but worshiping the ground they walk on is a little over the top, given the fact that so many kids aren't learning and are not leaving school ready for the real world. Parents should have the most influence on their children's readiness to enter the world. Parents should be a big part of the education our children receive. Too many schools are failing, and too many teachers are below standard. It's easy to blame funding or the fact that teachers supposedly don't have the resources they need, but the reality is that the public education system has many poor-quality teachers. Oklahomans insist that all the good teachers have left for Texas. I was a teacher in Texas, and there were just as many poor-quality teachers in the schools I taught in as there are in Oklahoma.
The problem is that government cannot run anything efficiently. Oklahoma government has misappropriated funds and wasted money at all levels, including state and local. Bond issues that have passed in many districts have leaned more heavily on fancy buildings and offices for administration than on teaching resources. Districts can choose where bond funds can go to but don't seem too eager to put it toward actual education. Instead, it goes toward administrative offices, fancy gyms, and new turf for the football fields. This is why I have never voted "yes" on a single bond issue that our district has put forward. I am certain I am in the minority, because the bond issues always pass.
If Oklahoma wants to see an end to the walkout, we need to stop showing up at the capitol and insist that students get back into the classroom. The fight can continue for better funding for the schools, but any bill put forward doesn't need to be rushed through until the state representatives can properly assess how it will impact the entire state of Oklahoma. There is no quick fix, and no amount of camping out at the capitol having singalongs will solve the education problem in Oklahoma.