On April 2nd, teachers from around the state of Oklahoma walked out of their classrooms and marched on the Oklahoma state capitol — protesting the last decade of cuts to education and demanding that Oklahoma legislatures provide adequate funding for public education, so as to allow teachers to give their students a quality education. The walkout has now continued for nearly two weeks, as tens of thousands of teachers return day after day to advocate for their students and for the future of our state.
I, too, have spent many days up at the capitol in support of educators in their endeavor and, initially, I wasn’t entirely sure as to why. After all, I haven’t been a student in the OK public school system for nearly 3 years now, I’m not a teacher, and I have no intention of becoming a teacher. It wasn’t until day 3 of the walkout, during House session, when Representative Scott Inman asked “Why are you here?” to everyone sitting in the chamber’s gallery, that I really began to consider it. Was I just at the capitol to be a part of the hype — to be a part of the movement — or was I there for something more?
It was in that moment that I remembered something else that Representative Inman had said to me nearly four years ago, in the midst of a different education crisis, while I was paging in the House of Representatives. After sitting in on a week worth of House floor meetings, listening to the GOP’s seemingly endless debate on the merits of 3rd grade testing (much to my distaste), my page group had the chance to talk to both representative Enns (R) and Representative Inman (D).
Representative Enns spoke to our group first, explaining that our education was a top priority for the Oklahoma legislature and that the Department of Education was one of the most well-funded in the state. He said that I should be proud of the education I was receiving in the OK public school system and, at the time, I was. At the time, I didn’t realize that it was irregular not to have updated textbooks or, in some cases, any textbook at all. At the time, I was unaware that it was out of the norm to have more than 22 students in a class. And, at the time, I only knew that I had excellent teachers — I did not realize that many of them were working 2+ jobs, and oftentimes struggling to make ends meet.
Representative Inman, on the other hand, was not so blindly optimistic (or blatantly deceitful). He, too, emphasized the importance of our educations and encouraged us all to work hard in school. However, he then went on to tell us some of the facts, like that the Department of Education had faced severe budget cuts for the previous five years. He ended the discussion by saying something that has stuck with me ever since. He said: “We are fighting for your education, and the time will come when you might have to fight for your education as well.” As a Senior in high school, I was not overly concerned by this statement. In fact, I disregarded it almost entirely when he said it.
However, two years later, as a student of Economics at the University of Oklahoma, I began to understand what he had meant. I began to understand that the best way to stimulate the economy was to increase government spending on social services like education, health care, transportation, and public security. After coming to this realization, it became increasingly difficult for me to understand why the legislator refused to stop handing out corporate tax breaks to the wealthy while simultaneously de-funding key services that benefit of middle- and low-income families.
I realize now that education is not merely a “teacher issue” or a “student issue;” it is a societal problem, and it impacts all of us. After all, if we fail to fund the education of Oklahoma’s youth today, we will most assuredly pay the price in the future. This point is made perfectly by the fact that Oklahoma is ranked 48th in education funding and 1st in incarceration. We fail our children from the start, and then we lock them up as punishment for our mistakes. This is a fact that I am simply no longer willing to ignore.
That is why I have spent the last eight days up at the capitol — waiting for hours on end to speak with legislatures, researching tax policy, and reading proposed legislation. The time has come to fight — not for my own education, but for the educations of the thousands of children in Oklahoma that are still in the public schools system. The fight has been difficult, and at times discouraging, as Republican legislators continuously deny the requests of Oklahoma’s teachers to fund the future of our state (despite their obligation to represent the interests of their constituents).
Nonetheless, witnessing OK teachers’ unwavering tenacity in the face of a near-total lack of action by legislatures during these challenging days has been one of the most inspiring and life-changing events of my life. Seeing teachers arrive to the Capitol day after day at the break of dawn, even before their legislators, crowding the halls of the capitol to max capacity and surrounding the building with signs in hand no matter rain, shine, or snow, has given me a renewed sense of faith in the future of our state. I am confident, for the first in years, that our state is on the path to prosperity. I am confident that we will no longer allow our elected officials to place their loyalty to corporate interests and the 1% above their civic responsibility to their constituents. And, if our legislatures refuse to represent our interests, I am now confident that we will have the courage and the resolution to replace them with others who do.
I, like many others I know, was deeply disappointed to hear that the Oklahoma Education Association had pulled their support for the teacher walkout despite our legislator’s and governor’s outright refusal to address (or even consider) our concerns about common education. Certainly, in passing HB 1010xx the legislator took a monumental step in the right direction, but it would be a severe overstatement to assume that this step was enough of an investment into public education. On the contrary, since the beginning of the walkout on April 2nd the legislator has not raised any additional funds for education — only repealed the Hotel/Motel tax that would have raised ~$50M and replaced it with an Amazon tax that is estimated to raise only ~$20M, resulting in a net loss of $3oM for teachers and students.
Despite this obvious funding discrepancy, some Republican legislators and the governor have been adamant in their claims that, by continuing the walkout and demanding additional funding, teachers are being selfish and behaving like “teenagers” that want a better car. Choosing to shut their eyes to reality, these legislators insist upon ignoring the hard facts: that educators were never fighting for a higher pay raise, but for a better future for the state of Oklahoma. Republican legislators have made the same promise day after day: that there is no budget hole and that any revenue reallocated in year 2 will be substituted with new growth revenue, knowing full well that it would be infinitely better to fully fund education now and allocate any additional growth revenue towards the multitude of other departments that have been similarly cut throughout the last decade, as opposed to relying on a revenue that may or may not be generated in the next fiscal year.
For this reason, I will not be reverting back to business as usual on Monday. I, alongside hundreds of parents, concerned community members, and teacher delegations, will continue to pressure my legislators to pass either the capital gains repeal or 0.25% income tax increase as well as a Wind GPT for as long as it takes. And, if at the end of our efforts, legislators are still intent on obstinacy and unwilling to compromise, I am prepared to work with educators to file initiative petitions to allow the electorate to vote on the issues that the legislator refuses to. Furthermore, I am fully intent on campaigning against those legislators whom have proven themselves to be unwilling to represent their constituents’ best interest.
I believe in the Oklahoma public education system. I believe in Oklahoma students and educators. And, more than anything, I believe in the future of this once-great state. That is why I have spent my last eight days at the capital, that is why I will continue to protest come next week, and that is why I will continue to fight for as long as it takes to restore Oklahoma to greatness. That is why I am here.