Oklahoma goes back to school in the post-walkout world
Sonja Caddell squinted as she intensely scanned the table for anything that might be useful in her first-grade classroom. The fifth-year teacher was on the hunt for lesson plans related to early childhood literacy and books with simple stories that could introduce her students to new words.
"It all starts with reading," said Caddell, who was just a few weeks away from a new school year at F.D. Moon Academy, an elementary school in northeast Oklahoma City.
Caddell moved from table to table inside the balmy warehouse in a west Oklahoma City industrial park, the site of a garage sale-style school supply event, where teachers were shopping for used books, lesson plans, posters and three-ring binders.
The sellers were also teachers, most hoping to make a few bucks to purchase their own resources, but mindful that the price tags had to fit with a teacher's salary.
It had been nearly four months since thousands of teachers walked out of schools across Oklahoma and massed at the state Capitol to protest poor classroom conditions and years of education budget cuts.
The two-week teacher walkout spurred a pay increase, won some additional school funding and sent a shock wave through Oklahoma's political landscape.
But as teachers prepared for the first new school year since the walkout, educators like Caddell were back in their communities as the realities of what the walkout did not accomplish quickly set in.
“At F.D. Moon our classrooms are really old. We still have chalkboards,” Caddell said. “I have a lot of work I‘m going to have to do to get my class caught up and get supplies for my students that I have to pay for myself. Same as last year."
Laura Parsons, a third-grade teacher from Harrah, who was selling her old classroom supplies at the warehouse sale, said the walkout didn't end as she had hoped.
“Right after the walkout it was kind of deflating,” said Parsons, who was selling bulletin boards, alphabet cutouts and other classroom decorations. “We tried so hard, we got a little bit, but not enough.”
Teachers paying out of pocket for their own supplies is not a uniquely Oklahoman circumstance as teachers nationwide spend on average about $479 of their own money on classroom materials, according to a survey conducted this year by the National Center for Education Statistics.
But Oklahoma teachers have long felt that a funding squeeze on public education had hit hardest in their state, where funding for public schools had decreased by nearly 9 percent since 2008, at the same time enrollment grew by 8 percent, surpassing 694,000 students last school year.
Even though the state Legislature approved a $6,100 average pay raise for teachers a week before the walkout, educators went forward with their protest.
Most teachers said they were seeking an additional $200 million for the state education budget, a response to the nearly $179 million that had been cut out of the state aid funding formula over the past decade.
During the walkout, lawmakers increased the state's $2.9 billion education budget by around $50 million, most earmarked for textbooks, far short of the significant increase teachers demanded.
Oklahoma's $9,219 per student public school revenue last year was the fourth-lowest out of all 50 states and the District of Columbia. The $50 million funding increase will equate to about an additional $70 per student, depending on this year's enrollment count.
“The government gives us desks and chairs and that's it,” Parsons said. “We shut down schools and went to the Capitol, but look around, teachers are still hunting for bargains for their classrooms that they have to pay for out of pocket.”
'Don't be fooled ...'
The Duncan High School drum line had just ended its high-energy routine, achieving its mission of getting many of the teachers in the auditorium out of their seats on an early July morning. As the students carried their drums and cymbals off the stage, the state's top school official took the podium and rendered her own energy-inducing performance in the form of an impassioned speech that revisited the April walkout.
Speaking during the state Department of Education's seven-day touring professional development summer conference, which had stopped in Duncan for the day, State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister praised the teachers in attendance for their determination during the walkout.
Hofmeister also listed a series of state education accomplishments over the last few years that included new academic standards, a reduction in state-mandated standardized testing and a new school accountability system.
But now, Hofmeister said, it was time for lawmakers to do their part and restore funding for the state's public education system.
"Don't be fooled by haters who just want to throw rocks at public schools," said Hofmeister, her words met with a smattering of applause. "When you hear people say 'we aren't going to give one more dime, one more penny until there are reforms,' I have a message and that message is 'catch up.' We have been working all this time in good faith to do what is right for our children, to set high bars, but that has to be funded."
Hofmeister, riding the wave of the walkout, told teachers they shouldn't view the Legislature's actions last April as enough.
"So much has been scaled back over the last decade that our children are truly unable to thrive all over the state," Hofmeister said. "No single stroke of a governor's pen can reverse that."
During the walkout, some lawmakers questioned how much money would be enough and a fiscally conservative Legislature wanted schools to do more to direct money to the classroom.
Teachers went to the Capitol with figures in mind, but they mostly brought stories of how flat budgets and midyear cuts had led to the loss of librarians, band programs and course offerings.
While the walkout ended with many of those issues going unaddressed, teachers said they would take their protest to the ballot box.
At least 74 current or recently retired public school teachers filed for state House and Senate seats this year, according to a count by The Oklahoman.
Another 20 school support workers or administrators are also running, according to the Oklahoma Education Association.
The number of teachers running for office this year, many of which said the walkout inspired them, is nearly triple the total during the 2016 election, when at least 34 teachers ran for office under the banner of the “teachers caucus.” However, most of those 2016 candidates lost and the defeat of a state question to fund a teacher pay raise added to a disappointing election cycle for many educators.
School boards and district administrators, who supported teachers during the walkout by pre-emptively closing schools, have also found ways to increase the focus on education during upcoming elections.
At least seven school districts have scheduled off days for the general election on Nov. 6, including Oklahoma City and Tulsa schools.
"Educators have spoken at the Capitol and now we will make it much easier for our advocates to express their concerns for those that do not support education, and to support those that do support education by voting,” wrote Yukon Superintendent Jason Simeroth, in a letter to his district in April, announcing that his school system would move an off day to Nov. 6.
The walkout has likely already had an impact on some elections as a lack of support for the tax hikes approved in March to fund teacher pay raises appeared to cost some Republican incumbents during the June primaries. Seven of the 10 incumbents forced into a runoff had opposed the tax increase.
"You can't say you voted for a teacher pay raise but didn't vote for the revenue," said state Rep. Chris Kannady, an Oklahoma City Republican who easily won his primary race in June.
'Where do we go from here?'
In the days before the walkout began, state lawmakers approved a series of tax increases on cigarettes, gasoline, diesel and oil production to fund a pay raise for teachers, completing a heavy legislative lift that had failed months earlier when a similar effort was pushed forward by state business leaders.
Those pay raises are hitting most teacher paychecks this month, which district leaders said has been a morale boost headed into the school year.
"Teachers are smiling and are engaged in a way that I haven't seen in quite a while," said Edmond superintendent Bret Towne.
The pay raises pushed the state minimum for a first-year teacher to $36,601 and the statewide average to about $51,400, including fringe benefits. That new average would move Oklahoma from third-worst in the nation to the middle of the pack, and second only to Texas in the region, according to the National Education Association.
Towne said the pay raise was a crucial step for the state, especially following an era of teachers leaving the profession or for districts in neighboring states where the starting pay can be more than $20,000 greater, especially in school districts in northwest Arkansas or the Dallas suburbs, which have advertised teaching positions on Oklahoma billboards.
"The pay raise is important, but where do we go from here?" Towne said. "We have to put more money in the funding formula, reinstate the school activity fund, which includes things like advance placement, staff development and after school remediation."
The Oklahoma Education Association, the state's largest teachers union, organized April's walkout, even though it was often playing catch up with teachers who used social media to accelerate the walkout timeline.
The union demanded a $10,000 teacher pay raise, a $5,000 pay raise for all school support staff, such as custodians, secretaries and food service workers, and $200 million in additional public school funding.
But it also wanted the Legislature to find an additional $213 million for state employee pay raises and $255.9 million in additional health care funding, a nod to the role other state services play in supporting a child's well-being.
The union's list added up to nearly $1.4 billion in new spending annually by 2021.
Teachers left the Capitol without most of those demands met, but a pay raise had been won.
“Of course we are grateful that we are getting a raise and I think that's a great start,” said Elizabeth Perry, a prekindergarten teacher in Lawton.
Besides the higher pay, Towne, the Edmond superintendent, said one of the greatest outcomes was a spotlight on the teaching profession and an outpouring of support from the public.
"After talking to my teachers I believe they are starting to feel valued again and they feel like their profession is being honored," Towne said.
For Caddell, the F.D. Moon first-grade teacher, it's not uncommon for strangers to thank her for her work while shopping at the grocery store or out for a meal at a restaurant.
“It's not like I'm in the military but I appreciate it,” Caddell said.
Caddell said she had never experienced that type of unsolicited gratitude before the April walkout.
“I feel like people understand now the struggles that teachers have gone through and it seems like people are more aware ... after the walkout,” Caddell said. "This job is a calling and I feel like more people get that."
After the Walkout
Editor's note: Today's story is the first in a four-part series from The Oklahoman exploring the impact the two-week April walkout had on Oklahoma’s public education system and where schools go from here.
Sunday: Back to school
Monday: The class of 2032
Tuesday: Reading, writing and politics
Wednesday: Head of the class