Now in her 23rd year of teaching, Kim Morris is working in conditions she couldn’t imagine when she started her career.
Mannford Early Childhood Center, where Morris teaches prekindergarten, sets the thermostat at 63 degrees and leaves many lights turned off throughout the day to save money.
Morris buys her own curriculum and had to leave her position as a first-grade teacher last year when the school reduced staff.
“This is enough,” Morris said. “I live to get up and go to school for their hugs, and their smiles and their ‘aha moments’ … but (my students) deserve better.”
Morris was one of several teachers gathered at the offices of the Oklahoma Education Association last week, and thousands more across the state who are threatening to strike on April 2 if a variety of funding demands are not met, including a teacher pay raise and additional public school funding.
If teachers end up walking off the job in two weeks, it will be the culmination of a decade of educator frustration, stemming from a combination of economic and political forces that saw public school budgets slashed, educator positions cut and a dramatic rise in the number of emergency certified teachers leading classrooms.
Since 2008, state funding for public schools has decreased by nearly 9 percent, while student enrollment has increased by over 8 percent.
“Since the Great Recession hit Oklahoma, we saw a big drop in funding and that funding has never really come back,” said Gene Perry, the strategy and communications director for the Oklahoma Policy Institute, a Tulsa-based think tank.
Adjusted for inflation, the state’s general funding of schools is down 28 percent per student since 2008, according to the institute.
District leaders say the result has been a reduction in school support staff and the elimination of some teaching positions, which means larger class sizes and some students going without counseling services.
Schools have reduced their art, music and foreign language programs.
Plans to purchase new textbooks and technology have been put on hold.
The culprit is often in the eyes of the partisan beholder.
State Democrats point to reductions in the tax rate on oil and gas production, which has resulted in over $300 million in lost annual revenue.
Oklahoma’s gross production tax is among the lowest in the country, and while many Republican House members voted earlier this year to raise the rate, Democrats have pushed for an even larger increase to restore the lost funding of the last several years.
Lawmakers also have approved reductions in the state income tax rate — approved under governors of both parties.
Republicans tend to point to declines in the oil and natural gas sector, which plays a critical role in Oklahoma’s economy.
“(Teachers) have to be realistic in what can really be done, especially when we’ve gone through five years with an economic downturn of the energy sector,” Gov. Mary Fallin told The Oklahoman last week.
The Legislature has made attempts to increase teacher pay in recent months, even getting most lawmakers on board with various tax increases.
But Oklahoma has a uniquely high threshold for passing taxes in the Legislature, requiring three-fourth of members to vote yes.
Beyond teacher pay
Perry said investing in education should include more than teacher pay increases, which often get the most attention, especially following a teacher strike in West Virginia earlier this month that ended with lawmakers approving a 5 percent pay raise.
“Oklahoma teachers and West Virginia teachers have similarly low salaries, but in Oklahoma they are also dealing with a much more difficult working environment because … we are funding education at 40 percent less per pupil than in West Virginia,” Perry said. “I think that fact has gotten lost some at the Capitol, just based on several proposals that seek a teacher pay raise and not deal with any of the other issues.”
While the Oklahoma Education Association has tasked the state Legislature with providing a $10,000 teacher pay raise over three years, its demands also include a $200 million increase in public school funding.
In total, the OEA is asking for over $1.4 billion in new spending over the next three years including a pay raise for school support staff and state employees.
“Attaining that in a single session I think would be extremely difficult,” House Speaker Charles McCall told the Tulsa World, referring specifically to the $10,000 teacher pay raise.
OEA officials have acknowledged their demands are ambitious, but they say it’s in response to a decade of funding declines.
“Oklahoma educators have reached a breaking point,” said Alicia Priest, president of the Oklahoma Education Association.
Rep. Leslie Osborn, R-Mustang, said she’s “very supportive of everything” the OEA is asking for, but she also worries it’s too big a request for the Legislature to meet in one year, especially given the requirement for three-fourth of members to support any tax increase.
“You have to look at who voted no before,” said Osborn, referring to a series of tax increases voted down last month in the state House.
“I don’t see changing votes on the far right because it’s what they ran on, no new taxes. A change (in votes) might have to come from the far left because they are willing to vote on new taxes, at times.”
Years of advocacy
If teachers strike on April 2, it will follow a number of advocacy efforts over the last several years.
In 2014, nearly 25,000 teaches and education supporters held a rally at the state Capitol, lobbying for school funding and teacher pay increases.
In 2016, dozens of current and former teachers ran for state office, often referred to as the “teachers caucus.”
That same year, many educators supported State Question 779, a statewide sales tax increase to fund teacher pay raises.
Beyond the Legislature, tax increases can be approved by a majority of voters. However, the state question was defeated.
In between those efforts, more teachers left Oklahoma, sometimes posting paycheck comparisons on social media that showed a $15,000 or $20,000 pay increase by moving just a few hundred miles to a neighboring state.
Last year, Shawn Sheehan, the 2016 Oklahoma Teacher of the Year, announced he was moving to Texas.
“We could stay, but it would cost our family, specifically our sweet baby girl. My wife and I are not willing to do that,” Sheehan said when he left.
Rarely used just a few years ago, there now are nearly 2,000 emergency certified teachers in classrooms across the state.
School district leaders have turned to applicants lacking traditional training as teacher openings have drawn less interest.
Joining teachers in a threat to strike next month are school support workers and state employees, who are also advocating for pay raises and increased funding.
“I think the longer those three groups stay together the more likely it is that something gets done,” said Jason Dunnington, D-Oklahoma City.
“We have a lot to make up for when it comes to education funding and teacher pay. But we also need to continue investing because this is about our future.”