This week, striking teachers across Oklahoma have been following in the footsteps of their counterparts in West Virginia. Their grievances, like those of so many teachers across the country, focus not only on low wages but the general lack of funding from the statehouse for basic operational costs.
Public schools are dealing with a shortage of supplies, outdated textbooks, poorly maintained buildings, and in some cases, a four-day school week.
"We love to teach, or we wouldn't be doing it," said veteran Oklahoma Spanish teacher Lilli Lyon. "I think it's just taken some of the joy away from teaching."
Since 2008, a confluence of factors, both political and economical, have pushed Oklahoma's state government to continually slash the education budget. One such factor, the Great Recession that decimated the housing market ten years ago, forced all state governments to reconsider their spending.
Michael Leachman, director of state fiscal research at the non-partisan Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, points out that Republican anti-tax orthodoxy that has redefined public services across the country has left teachers and schools barely scraping by.
But how did education become a primary target for cuts in the first place? Eric Houck, associate professor at the University of North Carolina’s School of Education, offers insight into why schools have become such a low priority.
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Excerpts from Interview with Spanish Teacher Lilli Lyon:
The first thing of course when I got here from Indiana I took a $10,000 cut in pay. But I just sort of figured that would slowly increase, it was ok. But the school itself was marvelous, we had amazing programs for the kids.
About four years ago is when I noticed that our school district couldn't hide it anymore, that we were in a crisis mode. One program at a time would be cut and all of a sudden we didn't have tech ed anymore, we didn't have weight lifting, we didn't have food, home economics, our art teacher had to be shared between two schools, we lost the funding for robotics, after school clubs, and teachers now have to do that on their own time. They don't get a stipend and they don't get any more money for supplies. And we lost teachers left and right.
We also lost teachers to other professions.
We are losing our teachers because they just don't make enough money.
Last semester I just started asking my coworkers does anyone make the exact same amount you made 10 years ago? And they said yeah Lilli we haven't had a raise in 10 years. Interesting that nothing else stayed the same. My homeowners insurance didn't stay the same, my car insurance didn't stay the same. But for me, I have two jobs after school and I got a roommate to help pay for expenses.
We certainly were happy that they passed at least a small teacher raise, it sounds like a lot of money $6,000. That's not a lot of money over ten years. That's about $800 a year if my math is correct.
It's not that much, but that's not what were the most upset about. It's that funding per student and that's why the teacher's walked out Monday, because we didn't get what we wanted per student.
We've got textbooks that are falling apart. I have students sharing textbooks. I have students saying to me we don't have pages 405 and 406, it's been torn out.
My class sizes were 22, 25. Just wonderful sizes for teaching a language two or three years ago when we had the recession. Now they're 31, 32, 33, and we're packed in there like sardines.
When you pack 33 kids in a room, they can't move. They are in their chair for 55 minutes. If you have anybody moving, you're gonna have chaos in the room.