Tomorrow morning I’ll join many of my colleagues in voting yes to walk off my job as a teacher on April 2nd. It’s a vote that comes with a lot of anger, a lot of concern for my students, and a lot of fear for my own future.
Today our district superintendent laid out what will happen in terms of our salaries if this walkout drags on for an extended period. It isn’t pretty, folks. In terms of salary, there’s a cutoff date and if the walkout goes beyond that, teachers won’t get 1/6 of their annual salary. Typically, that means two months’ pay at the end of June. With Oklahoma teachers being the lowest paid in the nation, it isn’t hard to guess that most of us do not have the savings to survive a summer without a paycheck.
If the Oklahoma Legislature refuses to raise the GPT to fund teacher pay raises and return the money taken from education over the past several years, many teachers will be forced to take other jobs or leave the state as the walkout continues. It’s something that’s already happening way too often, but it’s one thing to limp along with a little money and another thing to suddenly face a total lack of income (except for the 2nd and 3rd jobs many of us already have). Oklahoma’s GPT, by the way, is the lowest in the region, about half of Texas’ GPT … Texas, where teachers earn about $20,000 per year more than in Oklahoma. It’s not going to hurt the big oil companies to pay more taxes for drilling here.
Salary issues aside, what about the students? Will my students miss out on taking their Advanced Placement tests in May? If teachers are out for a while, will the students be adequately prepared for those tests? What about the kids who rely on school for two meals a day? The ones who need a teacher or counselor to turn to when home life is bad? What about sports? Band and choir concerts? Prom? Graduation? Can parents afford to pay more for childcare when school isn’t in session? What trouble might bored teenagers find with extra time out of class?
One of our state representatives has already said the teacher walkout is “extortion.” The students Rep. Coody said this to responded well, hitting several important issues, such as unqualified people teaching our students as qualified teachers flee the profession or the state, the lack of supplies, overcrowded classrooms, etc. The students understand we are not abandoning them. They work every day with books missing covers and pages, watching YouTube videos of science experiments because they don’t have lab supplies to actually do the experiments, and trying to get the most from their class periods when there are 35+ students in a room designed to hold 25. Our students support us. They know we’re not the greedy people the legislators are already making us out to be.
Already the Oklahoma lawmakers are acting to punish teachers with recent bills passed through committees. In one instance, violent students who have assaulted teachers will be allowed to return to school, putting teachers, staff, and their fellow students in danger. HB 3539 seeks to eliminate minimum teacher salaries and annual step increases under the guise of allowing districts to compete for the best teachers. However, districts can already pay more than the state minimum, so in reality the bill simply gives districts a reason to do away with step increases, which typically are about $200 per year. Another bill limits the time period teachers can look for employment in other districts, threatening to revoke teaching certificates if teachers resign after June 15.
Hopefully the parents — the Oklahoma voters — understand all this. Hopefully they will join teachers on April 2nd at the State Capitol. Hopefully they will call their representatives and senators and demand that lawmakers give teachers their first pay raise in 10 years and restore education funding.
Failure to act together as a state right now will likely mean a very long-term failure as our education system continues to crumble and Oklahoma students fall further and further behind their peers in our country.