By Amanda Litvinov / image courtesy of Fight for Funding
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The Oklahoma legislature has signaled that no new money will go to education in spite of the fact that schools are severely underfunded and teachers are leaving at an alarming rate.
Despite the pleas of parents and educators, too many state legislators refuse to discuss ending the outrageous tax giveaways for oil and gas companies that have left the state with a $900 million budget hole.
The legislature missed its April 1 deadline to deliver an education budget. If lawmakers can’t figure out a budget by Friday, they will go into a special session that will cost taxpayers an estimated $30,000 a day–almost a teacher’s starting salary in Oklahoma.
Meanwhile, educators are closing out another school year made more challenging by severe underfunding.
“There’s so much strain on the educators,” says Nina Coerver, a U.S. and World History teacher at Westmoore High School in Oklahoma City.
It started on the first day of school, when some classrooms didn’t have enough chairs to seat all the students.
“My colleague across the hall brought in portable camping chairs so no one would have to sit on the floor,” recalled Coerver.
“Even all the routine things like grading and getting through all the state content before testing is just more difficult with larger classes,” she said. Coerver calls herself lucky, because none of her classes have exceeded 35 students.
But when she started teaching 12 years ago, just 30 kids would have been considered a very large class. Now she has a much harder time developing relationships with her students through one-on-one conversations.
“I need to know what’s going on with them, but this year there were things I was finding out in October that I should have known in August,” she said.
Adding to the strain, Oklahoma teachers, among the most poorly compensated in the nation, routinely purchase their own classroom supplies. They’ve been doing so for years.
Oklahoma’s per-pupil funding has been cut by 23.6% since 2008. Those are the deepest cuts to education seen in any state in the nation.
The Oklahoma Education Association (OEA) has launched Fight for Funding, a new campaign fueled by parents, educators, and other concerned citizens to educate the public on the severity of the situation and to target lawmakers.
When comparing Oklahoma’s teacher pay and per-pupil funding to surrounding states, “we get an F, it’s what we deserve,” says Spanish teacher and OEA President Alicia Priest in the powerful campaign video.
Many counties already have already shortened the school week to four days, and more are considering doing so next year. Some rural counties might have to close their schools altogether.
Oklahoma is experiencing a teacher shortage, which is not surprising given that Oklahoma teachers receive nearly the worst compensation in the United States. Texas openly targets talented educators to come work for them.
Coerver said there are districts in Texas where she and her husband, who is a 4th-grade teacher, could each earn $15,000 a year more. It would be like adding a third salary to their household income. But so far, they’ve chosen to stay near family in their home state.
“I get why people are leaving,” said Coerver. “Some educators have student loans to pay off. If it made sense for us to uproot our family, I guess we would.”
Her district expects 300 more students will enter the school system next year.
“They keep telling us class sizes aren’t going to increase. But I don’t see how that’s possible given that the state is in revenue failure and we’ve been shorted $3 million since January,” Coerver said.
“We’re trying to stay positive, but it’s all really hard on morale.”