Correction: This story originally misspelled the name of state Sen. Kim David, R-Porter. The story has been corrected.
OKLAHOMA CITY — Thousands of Oklahoma teachers swarmed the Capitol on Monday for what turned out to be the largest protest of state funding for public education in recent years.
Teachers are expected to return for more demonstrations Tuesday, as the state’s two largest school districts, Oklahoma City and Tulsa, have already canceled classes to allow teachers to participate.
Tulsa-area districts announcing Tuesday shutdowns include Bartlesville, Bixby, Broken Arrow, Catoosa, Claremore, Coweta, Glenpool, Jenks, Okmulgee, Owasso, Sand Springs, Sapulpa, Skiatook and Wagoner.
By 9:15 a.m. on Monday, a continuous line of teachers, three to four people wide, was circumnavigating the Oklahoma state Capitol protesting the state’s funding level for public schools.
News helicopters buzzed overhead and the national media watched as thousands of people waved protest signs and rallied for more operational dollars for schools at a 10:30 a.m. rally.
National and state teachers union leaders spoke on the south steps of the Capitol, calling the teacher pay raise that the Oklahoma Legislature passed last week “a down payment.”
“Teachers want what students need,” said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers.
Classroom teachers from districts across the state all echoed that sentiment — they are fighting for lawmakers to address the devastating effects that deep state funding cuts over the last decade have had on class sizes, course offerings and instructional materials for students.
Jennifer Ellis, a science teacher at Mannford High School, wore a Tyrannosaurus rex costume to the protest and carried a sign that read “Extinct: T. Rex, Endangered: Teachers.”
The 14-year-veteran teacher wasn’t missing school because her district had a previously scheduled professional development day Monday. She and her colleagues are at odds with their district administrators over a possible work stoppage on Tuesday and beyond.
“I’m here for school funding. It doesn’t matter that we got a raise — if we don’t get more funding for schools, we’re just going to have to spend more money on supplies,” Ellis said.
The Oklahoma Education Association has three demands it says would end the teacher walkout: fill the $50 million gap in hotel/motel tax revenue the Legislature repealed last week, pass a bill that would bring in revenue by allowing “ball and dice” gambling, and find additional revenue sources to increase funding for schools.
“Although teachers and education supporters made history today, our work is far from over,” Oklahoma Education Association President Alicia Priest said in a statement.
“Lawmakers promised educators they were doing all they could to find new revenue. But, with a packed gallery full of education supporters and a line of people waiting to get inside, the House of Representatives adjourned for the day without doing a single thing.
“This disrespect from lawmakers only drives the anger and frustration of teachers and education supporters, and it’s why Oklahomans from every corner of this state have no trust in this legislature.
“Lawmakers can repeal the capital gains tax exemption and pass the House Bill 1013, known as ‘ball and dice,’ to add more than $100 million in revenue to fund public schools. Both could be passed tomorrow if the legislature has the will,” she said.
State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister spent Monday afternoon working behind the scenes inside the Capitol. She had meetings set up with Sen. Kim David, R-Porter, who serves as Senate appropriations chairwoman, and Rep. Kevin Wallace R-Wellston, the House appropriations and budget chairman.
“We are working in hopes of seeing some movement on revenue bills to try to get some more funding for education,” Hofmeister said.
Many educators and parents and students remained inside the Capitol, arriving shortly after 8 a.m. and staying until after 2 p.m. to line up outside lawmakers’ office doors.
Spotting a large paper cutter next to a host of hole punches on a table in a state Senate hallway, Tabitha McClanahan joked to her fellow pre-kindergarten teacher, Rebekah Anderson, “Can we take this?”
Anderson laughed and said, “Yeah, I’ll see if it will fit into my purse!”
The duo, who work at Holmes Park Elementary in Sapulpa, were looking for the office of their state senator, James Leewright, because he voted for the revenue package and teacher pay raises.
“We wanted to say ‘Wonderful, thank you,’ ” McClanahan said. And why did that paper cutter look so appealing?
“Because ours cuts crooked!” McClanahan said, laughing.
Joe Dorman, a former gubernatorial candidate who is now executive director of the Institute for Child Advocacy, had his organization registering teachers to vote on the fourth floor of the Capitol.
He said it is a commonly held belief in Oklahoma politics that only 1 in 6 teachers votes regularly.
“We started an initiative called ‘Chalk the Vote’ to send advocacy tips to teachers,” Dorman said. “Because of their work, it is harder for teachers to vote on the day of elections, so we are trying to get the word out so they understand their absentee and early voting options.”
Sam Madewell, a math teacher and baseball coach at Midwest City High School, said his long commute to work from Mustang every day makes it hard for him to make it to the polls. He guesses it has been several elections since he voted, so he was registering because he worries he has been dropped from the voter rolls.
Jake Akin, a teacher at Collegiate Hall Charter School in Tulsa, said kids suffer from the lack of funding he’s seen “on both sides” — charter and public.
He walked with Hannah Peters, a teacher at Tulsa’s Mitchell Elementary, who noted the 60 percent teacher turnover at Mitchell from low pay and lack of funding, which she described as “symptoms of a failed system.”
Heather Moore, among the 90 or so Muldrow teachers marching Monday, said her district had more than 200 employees before the first cuts and now it has 170. Moore, a special education teacher, said the lack of funding means kids can’t have fun anymore.
“When you enjoy, you learn more,” Moore said.
Ed Burns, a Wyandotte Public Schools substitute, said “its not really about the raise. There’s no supplies. Our schools don’t have the funding.” Wyandotte is shut down until Thursday, he said.
Debra Wolfe, a librarian at Collinsville Upper Elementary, taught third grade for 20 years previously in her 37-year career in public education. She rallied at the Capitol for education funding in 1990, 2014 and 2015 and came back on Monday with a group of teachers from Collinsville.
“It wasn’t but a few years after House Bill 1017 was passed that we saw class sizes returned to larger sizes,” Wolfe said. “We were here in 2014 and 2015 and it didn’t make a difference, not one. It was never really for the raises — we are here for school support and funding.”