There’s a controversy in my state. It’s all over the news reports on each television station with reporters getting comments from both those directly involved and those on the periphery. Social media is blowing up with posts from those incensed from injustice as well as those who justify where we find ourselves. It is affecting moods, causing family disagreements and impacting the work environment. The University of Oklahoma made the cut with the March Madness men’s basketball tournament selection committee and Oklahoma State University did not. Can you believe that? Ridiculous, isn’t it?
As fired up as people are about the tournament, the real question on who is in and who is out surrounds the possibility of a work action by Oklahoma’s teachers and public employees if the state legislature fails to restore education funding levels that have been cut time and again over the last decade. There are some who have shown courageous leadership on multiple fronts regarding the lack of a future-oriented budget plan for the state. Our governor, Mary Fallin, even called a special session and vetoed a budget that simply made cuts when the gimmicks legislators tried to finagle last May were declared unconstitutional by the state’s Supreme Court. I guess the legislature had the last laugh as they continued to spend tax dollars on a failed special session and simply showed up for work this session to pass a budget that made cuts across the board (on top of cuts from last spring) – something our governor promised she would not support when she first called a special session – yet it bears her proud signature today.
This post isn’t a rant on the state of politics or politicians in Oklahoma. There’s lots of blame to go around. Democrats blame Republicans for not making their targets bear more of the tax burden while Republicans blame Democrats for not backing the latest revenue raising proposal. This is about the agonizing decision that many educators, support employees, school board members and education advocates are facing. Do we support a walkout on April 2 or not? Let’s get real. The legislature will not act. They haven’t acted to support education in a decade and they won’t in the next three weeks. Those who support education have already done so. Those who want to hold our kids and their futures hostage to political rhetoric and posturing will continue to do so. So what are we to do as educators? Are we in or are we out? There are people I respect greatly who find themselves torn on both sides of this question.
The critics will say children are being used as pawns in the game. They say cancelling school will be detrimental to students. I can’t disagree with the fact that students and families will be inconvenienced and opportunities will be lost whether it’s the state debate tournament or a field trip or an arts competition or district baseball, softball and soccer games. Some schools will have to look at special events such as Prom and other student rites of passage. To those legislative bullies who want to blame educators for those outcomes, again, let’s be real. Your intentional budget strategies and dare I say, negligence, have cut funding for field trips, arts programs, sports teams and crammed more students into classrooms staffed with fewer adults and older resources for a decade. No one stood up and railed against the effects those decisions had on kids. It was just a death by a thousand paper cuts until there wasn’t any more blood to squeeze out. You don’t have to agree with me and I’m sure I’m not persuading you, but Columbus didn’t persuade everyone the world wasn’t flat when he set sail in 1492. Just because people didn’t believe him didn’t mean he wasn’t right.
Teachers want to teach. They want to be in their classrooms. That is where the real difference is made. I’m an administrator, but I would love to be in the classroom. I left because I had few remaining options to stay in education and support my family while still being able to look myself in the mirror. We have teachers who leave each evening and then go to their second or third job whether it’s driving for Uber, working retail, selling lessons and projects on the web or teaching students from China online. I wanted to take my wife on a vacation to Hawaii. This was after I had worked to gain certification as a National Board Certified Teacher which was given a $5000 stipend from the state (at least until the legislature cut the stipends as part of the cuts to public education). I had worked to gain a Master’s Degree and the bump in pay I got didn’t cover the cost of my books. So I went to work for a grocery store and helped stock shelves from 10pm to 2am. Did that make me a more effective teacher? Of course not! Would you go to a doctor or an accountant or a nurse that was working two or three different jobs? Of course not!
This isn’t about feeling sorry for me. I did what I had to do for that season and I’m doing what I’m called to do now, but the action is at the classroom level. The teacher knows his or her students and not only provides teaching and learning opportunities, but also serves as cheerleader, counselor, encourager, safety expert, life coach, career advisor and so many other roles that we ask of them (Ask of them isn’t accurate — our society demands this of them). I’ll say there are some things in education that need to change. We need to take a look in the mirror and ask ourselves if we’re doing our best for our kids each day. We need to dress, speak, communicate and act as professionals on a daily basis. We’ve rallied for more funding in the past. We’ve walked the halls of the capitol. We’ve emailed and called legislators. We’ve worked campaigns and we’ve had empty rhetoric and failed promises. We were told after a ballot measure didn’t pass that we were heard and education funding and teacher pay was going to be a priority only to see it fail time and time again. Most politicians campaign as supporters of public education and voters let them get away with it even when actions don’t align with the words.
So are parents in or out? The legislature probably will blow educators off again, maybe at their own peril. Perhaps they’ve taken the calculated risk that the blow back on teachers will be too great. I’m in on the work action. I hate it. I’m sick about it. I wish there were any other viable option, but to me, I can’t see one. Even as instruction is made up, opportunities will be lost. I pray that communities, students and families can convince the legislature that this is a crisis that must be met with action instead of empty words. I know this stirs up controversy, passions and emotions, and I’m sure I will be criticized even for sharing my thoughts. Maybe people who thought they knew and respected me will decide that I wasn’t who they thought I was. I don’t do this for you. I do this for them – the teachers who touch our state’s future, the parents who need to send their students to classrooms that are safe and staffed by educators who know their craft and love their students and most of all those students who need opportunities to prepare to be the courageous leaders that our state is in such desperate need of right now.