Originally published in The Guardian on April 4, 2018, by Mike Elk.
“It’s like the Arab spring, but it’s a teacher spring,” geography teacher Toni Henson said, smiling as thousands of teachers march past picketing the Oklahoma state capitol and calling for higher wages and funding for schools.
The protest takes to the street Wednesday as hundreds of teachers will begin a 110-mile march from Tulsa to Oklahoma City stopping at closed down schools along the route to rest. Teachers in Kentucky have gone out on strike too and Arizona may be next.
Teachers and students across the United States have been invigorated in recent months by a series of high-profile protests. With student walkouts protesting Trump’s immigration policies and gun violence and teachers calling for the reversal of decades of education cuts and higher wages, it’s a movement that has reignited a debate about the role of activism in the classroom.
Oklahoma’s strike began Monday when teachers in over 100 school districts walked out, rejecting a $6,000 pay increase offered by the state and demanding a $10,000 raise as well as increased funding for books, curriculum and staffing.
The school system has reached breaking point after decades of neglect, said the teachers. In some schools, teachers don’t assign homework because their budget for books is so small that they can’t afford to risk a student losing a $200 textbook. Teachers have been posting pictures of their crumbling textbooks online.
“Honestly, students feel like [education] is not important,” said Kelsey Laster, a fourth-grade teacher a Rollingwood elementary school in Putnam City, Oklahoma. “People don’t look at them like they are important so they don’t look at it like it’s important.”
It wasn’t always this way in Oklahoma.
Since 2009, Oklahoma has cut more of its state education funding than any other state in the country, cutting more than $192m since 2009 according to a report released by the Oklahoma Policy Institute.
The cuts came after the state lost more than a quarter of its operating budget because of a series of cuts to the state’s oil and natural gas production tax and personal income taxes initiated in the mid-2000s. While neighboring Texas has an effective taxation rate of 8% on oil and natural gas, Oklahoma’s tax rate sits at a mere 3.2%.
If it were not for the tax cuts on natural gas and oil as well as personal income taxes, the Oklahoma Policy Institute estimates that the state would have an additional $356m to spend on K-12 (primary and high school) education as well as an additional $238m to spend on higher education.
Neighboring Texas, with its higher natural and oil gas production tax, has a minimum starting teacher salary of $50,000. While across the border in Oklahoma, the starting salary for teachers is only $32,000, or less than $15 an hour when you factor in the cost of healthcare premiums. Unsurprisingly Oklahoma is currently experiencing a massive brain drain of talent to Texas.
“Almost all of our family members tell us that they want us to live here, but they are worried about our wellbeing and tell us to move elsewhere for work,” said aspiring English teacher Maggie Slogan of Enid, Oklahoma, a student at Southwestern Oklahoma State University.
Many teachers say that they are often forced to work second or third jobs just to stay in the state where they are born.
Despite working for 21 years as a school counselor in Locust Grove, Oklahoma, Stevens says that he makes only $39,000 a year after deducting for healthcare. In order to make ends meet he also drives the school bus to and from school.
Due to budget cuts, his school is open only four days a week.
Stevens lives 20 minutes from the Arkansas border and says that he could easily get a job making $20,000 more across state lines.
“Everyone with a brain in their head has left the state,” said Oklahoma native Stevens. “The reason I haven’t left is that I am here fighting for what matters for Oklahoma. I’ve been in Locust Grove for 21 years, my life is right there in that community. A lot of these kids, I counseled their parents and now I’m getting their kids.”
Teachers say they are prepared to stay out on strike for as long it takes.
“You have to be persistent to sustain,” said history teacher Jack Reavis as he circled the Capitol holding a 10ft high picket sign reading “Persist like Clara Luper”, in reference to high school social studies teacher Clara Luper, who stubbornly worked for decades to desegregate Oklahoma City.
“Most of these legislators don’t think we will last a week, but I think we will last longer,” said Reavis. “This is important because if we fold, it’s over for everybody.”
Karina Moreno contributed reporting on this story.
- This article was amended on 4 April 2018 to correct the length of the march. It is 110 miles, not 123 as originally written.