I remember the day fairly strongly even though I was around 8 or 9 years old. My aunt was taking me to the movies, and to the best of my recollection, this is the only one she took my cousins and me to. We went to see Oliver!, a re-release prior to the rise of the dollar movie theaters. It was the musical adaptation of Dickens’ Oliver Twist, and I enjoyed it, not just because of the movie, but because I got some popcorn as well. Guess I was a foodie at an early age. I vividly remember the scene involving the song “Oliver” where Oliver Twist goes to the beadle of the workhouse and asks for more gruel. The inquiry is not well-received. The lyrics include:
For what you are about to receive
May the lord make you truly thankful.
[spoken] Please, Sir, I want some more.
[spoken] Please, Sir, I want some more.
Pick him up and bounce him!
Before we put the lad to task
May I be so curious as to ask
[WIDOW CORNEY AND MR. BUMBLE]
Never before has a boy wanted more!
[MR. BUMBLE AND WIDOW CORNEY]
Won’t ask for more when he knows what’s in store.
There is an impending teacher walkout in Oklahoma due in part to educator requests to improve salaries and funding to public education since we have consistently ranked at the bottom of the nation. A bill was signed into law yesterday that would address some of the salary issues, although not to the levels that some had said were necessary. These are just a few of my personal observations and as a former history teacher, I feel context is important to have a better understanding of our present realities.
- The state legislature and the governor signed into law an historic tax increase and pay raise for teachers. That legislation raises the average teacher salary to much more competitive levels in the region. What the revenue does not do is move the needle much for support employees such as bus drivers, child nutrition workers or maintenance staff. What the legislation does not do is make funding available to recover from year after year and literally month after month of reductions due to cuts and revenue failures passed along to school districts and other state agencies. New dollars were not dedicated to effectively add needed staff which means no additional paraprofessionals to work with special needs students, no new teachers to reduce overcrowded classrooms, no new instructional assistants to assist English language learners, no additional school resource officers to make our students and campuses safer and no new counselors to assist students who struggle with emotional and mental health needs.
- Political leadership and courage was shown to bring about this step and that should not be underestimated or underappreciated, particularly in the face of enormous pressure from outside groups and political leaders. However, it did not take long for those who have reasons to mistrust state leadership to find a contemporary reason for that mistrust to exist. Before the bill could be signed, maneuvers began (and were completed) to pull about $47 million out of the package. The bill today requires districts to spend money without the adequate funding sources to complete those tasks. Political leaders have asked for trust to come up with the new revenue sources to make the numbers add up or to hope that the economy will recover to the point additional revenue is generated, but quite frankly, “trust us to do something” or “wait until our economy is better” has been heard before. On March 31, 2014, I took my 6th grade daughter to a rally for education at the state capitol. Throngs of educators and education supporters met outside while students, educators and legislators gave speeches talking about demanding respect and taking positive action immediately. The very moments my daughter held a poster outside that asked the legislators to “Fund education for my future and Oklahoma’s” a committee was inside voting to lower the state income tax, which was eventually passed and signed into law. In 2016, State Question 779 was defeated although it would have increased state taxes to provide a pay raise for teachers. Do a search of SQ779 and the remarks after the vote and you will find comments from politician after politician who said that the need was there but 779 wasn’t the correct vehicle to address education’s problems. They promised educators were heard and action would be forthcoming to resolve the underlying issues. Earlier this year, a plan was generated in the special session called “Step Up Oklahoma” which would have created new revenue sources to allow for $750 million in part for a $5000 teacher pay raise as well as additional funding to public education. It went down again. Even common sense approaches such as Senator David Rader’s SB1086 which would end a tax credit (Did you catch that? Not create a new tax but eliminate a tax credit that costs the state about $450 million while bringing in only around $9 million according to Sen. Rader) are not making progress through the legislative gauntlet. Let’s be honest — if the Step Up plan would have passed, there would not be serious momentum for a walkout currently.
- Political involvement and action is required of those who support public education. In the upcoming 2018 election, many incumbents do not have a challenger. What we permit, we condone. Some leaders currently in office are there, partly due to the efforts, phone calls, sign planting, donations and rallying of the education community. Some of those in leadership positions now seem to be surprised that educators would be asking for more than what was gained this week. The initial reason for the walkout was not merely to address salary inequities. Educators want the tools needed to do their jobs. Teachers don’t want to leave their classrooms. They want to have their students’ academic, emotional and physical needs met. They don’t want their colleagues as support employees to suffer consequences. A few weeks ago, education advocacy groups presented a united front demanding action. Now that some action has taken place, the multi-million dollar question is “Is this enough?” Put another way, “Is this a first step in the right direction?” or to some “Is this a ploy to put on a band aid and forget about education for the next decade?” The level of mistrust is there and although not all current political leaders are to blame for it, the reality is what it is. A promise delayed has the same immediate effect as a promise broken.
In Wuthering Heights, author Charlotte Bronte wrote, “Life is so constructed, that the event does not, cannot, will not, match the expectation.” To those who are currently demanding action, this might be something to consider. The reality of what has already been gained may not live up to the expectation initially created when action was demanded. However, one outcome that I am devastated to see is the in-fighting that is taking place among education groups. I’ve even heard of an area district where high school teachers are walking out while elementary teachers are not. This type of division is not good for anyone. I think Bronte’s exhortation applies to both sides of this equation. If you have built your career on the backs of educators who are tired of asking for more gruel only to be ridiculed, scorned, ignored or accused of not supporting students, looming events may not match your expectations.
I don’t have a crystal ball and won’t try to predict the future. My hope is that people will put aside partisan agendas and get busy doing the work of leading the state into the future. This is beyond slick marketing to try to claim Amazon or some other corporation should locate its new headquarters in the state. Does any political or economic leader realize that Amazon and other businesses can access the internet and see the state of support for education and political dysfunction for themselves? Money is finite just like other resources, but we find money for those things we truly value. I don’t know a single teacher who is saying they are willing to walk out because they want a higher raise, although it is easy for the news headline to claim teachers are walking out after a pay increase. Teachers want the resources to effectively meet the needs of students. This is a time where common sense should be substituted for grandstanding, the best interests of students in the short term and the long run need to be considered and humility and grace needs to be extended quickly. The problems weren’t created overnight and can’t be solved overnight. Trust wasn’t broken overnight and can’t be built overnight, but efforts to paint a realistic picture of solutions that extend beyond this next year are definitely required. A promise delayed has the same immediate effect as a promise broken.