Watching teachers walk out this spring has startled America in these discouraging times, but nowhere was it as moving as in Oklahoma. The teachers walked out, and, grateful that teachers had figured out a way to expose desperate conditions in the schools, school superintendents and school boards—the management—shut down school for two weeks and walked with their teachers in gratitude. At the statehouse itself the protestors walked into a brick wall. More than just demonstrating what is missing from their classrooms, they showed what decent concern for our children would require of us as citizens and what—across too many of our states—one-party, anti-tax state legislators and governors are quite satisfied to deny.
Rivka Galchen profiles the Oklahoma walkout in this week’s New Yorker magazine. Galchen, who accompanied and learned to know many teachers, reflects on her own experience of the strike and on the lives of teachers she came to know.
Even before the strike when they worried about a possible walkout, members of the legislature proposed a modest raise. But teachers, desperate about the conditions for children in their schools, refused to cancel the walkout. Galchen writes: “Teachers in Oklahoma are paid less than those in West Virginia, which spends forty percent more per pupil than Oklahoma does… In response to the threat of a walkout, the Republican-dominated Oklahoma legislature offered teachers a pay raise of around six thousand dollars a year. It funded the raise with an assortment of tax bills, most of which disproportionately affect the poor—a cigarette tax, a diesel tax, an Amazon sales tax, an expansion of ball and dice gambling, and a five-dollar-per-room hotel-motel tax. The Republicans touted the move as historic, and it was: the legislature hadn’t passed a tax increase since 1990.”
Galchen carefully defines the constraints placed on the state by years of anti-tax governments: “Oklahoma has essentially been under single-party rule for about a decade. The state legislature is eighty percent Republican, and in the most recent midterm elections the Democrats didn’t field a candidate in nearly half the races. Governor Fallin is in her eighth year, and during her tenure nearly all state agencies have seen cuts of between ten and thirty percent, even as the population that those agencies serve has increased. A capital-gains tax break was configured in such a way that two-thirds of the benefit went to the eight hundred wealthiest families in the state. An income-tax reduction similarly benefited primarily the wealthy. The tax on fracked oil was slashed, and when it was nudged back up—it remains the lowest in the nation—the energy billionaire and political kingmaker Harold Hamm, whose estimated net worth is quadruple the budget that the legislature allocates to the state, stood in the gallery of the capitol, letting the lawmakers know that he was watching. Reversing tax cuts is never easy, but it’s almost impossible in Oklahoma. In 1992, a law was passed requiring that any bill to raise taxes receive the assent of the governor and three-quarters of the legislature.”
Accompanying Karen Gaddis, a recently elected Democratic member of the state’s House, to her office to meet with constituents—who during the walkout were primarily schoolteachers, Galchen listens as Todd Henshaw, a high school teacher from Mounds, Oklahoma’s Liberty High School, shares his concerns: “I’ve been teaching for twenty-two years. My base salary is thirty-eight thousand dollars. And, even if they give us raises, they’re not addressing class size. Up to seventy percent of our students qualify for free or reduced lunch. We are on a four-day-a-week schedule. Churches bring in bags on Friday for the Monday lunch that students are missing. We have two teachers leaving, going to Texas. Signed contracts for sixty thousand dollars. I just have to say, I think the legislators are out of touch.”
Many people across the state share the school teachers’ desperate concern about the conditions in their children’s schools, even though their elected representatives adamantly ignore the wishes of a wide swath of their constituents. One group of teachers walked for several days 110 miles from Tulsa to Oklahoma City. To prepare for their walk, teachers, “packed enough food and water for several days knowing that they would be walking long stretches through sparsely populated areas.” Heather Cody, a teacher who helped organize the protest describes the walk: “(I)t soon became very apparent we didn’t need to carry anything… We’d top a hill and then we’d see a family there by the side of the road, with the bed of their truck loaded with water bottles, bananas… An interfaith alliance was feeding us dinner each evening. High schools opened their gymnasiums for us to sleep in.” “On the seventh day… the… teachers woke up in the high-school library in Jones. Several hundred people were waiting outside to walk the last nineteen miles with them. A high-school marching band led them the last mile to the capitol, where thousands of people greeted them.”
Galchin concludes by describing what appears to be a political awakening, which will be important to watch in November. She describes several people inspired by the protests—and the recalcitrance of the legislature. After sitting in the gallery with red-clad schoolteachers, Galchen describes the long legislative session. Several times motions to introduce open discussion about school issues were raised, but each one failed to attract enough votes from the solid supermajority. “When the session is gavelled out, not a single proposal for education has been brought to the floor.”
All this, Galchin believes, has set up a new political reality in Oklahoma: “The last days of the teacher walkout coincided with candidate filing…. The walkout mostly failed to secure more funding for classrooms, but it was a baptism by fire for a movement of politically literate and engaged Okies… Owing to the walkout, and to the large number of candidates, the filing proceedings were moved from the second floor of the capitol to the west entrance, where the senators enter. Folding tables and chairs were cordoned off with stanchions and rope. At the first set of tables, candidates presented notarized paperwork, a certified check to the State Board of Elections, and proof that they were old enough to run… Darrel Moore, a retired two-star Marine Corps general, arrived with his wife. He’d decided two days earlier to run as a Democrat for the House of Representatives… Tyson Todd Meade, the lead singer of the Oklahoma-based nineties band, the Chainsaw Kittens, filed to represent Oklahoma as a Democrat in the U.S. House… and dozens of teachers filed.” One new candidate, a social studies teacher in Tulsa, tells Galchin: “We have gotten to see here pure, unalloyed, deep-red conservative government, and we will learn from it… People say they aren’t interested in politics. But then politics happens to them.”
Please take the time to read Rivka Galchen’s Letter from Oklahoma in this week’s New Yorker.