Mr. Chips goes to Oklahoma City (Guest post: John Waldron)

John Waldron

John Waldron is a history teacher at Booker T. Washington High School. His earlier contribution to the OK Policy Blog is “The public education crunch goes from bad to worse.”

On March 30 I took a group of teachers and students to Oklahoma City for the Brighter Future Education Rally sponsored by the Oklahoma PTA.  It wasn’t my first rodeo. As a public school teacher, I have attended at least four rallies over the last fifteen years, including last year’s record-breaking gathering of 30,000 outside the capitol building. But this was my first attempt to go inside and talk directly to the people who write the legislation and budget for our public schools. It was an eye-opening experience.

First of all, I was impressed by the openness of the process. Together our team met with six legislators – three Republican and three Democratic. Most of the appointments were made that day, and three legislators let us walk in without an appointment. Each engaged in a frank exchange of views.

Now these are tough times for public school teachers. Budgets fell in 2009 and haven’t recovered. My class sizes are about 30 percent bigger than they were seven years ago, which was also the last time I got a raise. This legislature had already singled out the Oklahoma Education Association for a ban on automatic payroll deduction of association dues (Senator Dahm called OEA a group that “negotiates against the people of Oklahoma”). The legislators didn’t have much good news for us. Even the sympathetic ones (on both sides of the aisle) told us to expect more cuts. We pretty much expected that.

In the course of the discussions, we gained some interesting insights into how teachers and education issues are viewed at the Capitol. One argument we heard: “there is no funding crisis – cuts to education have been restored, or almost restored, over time.” Another: “teachers come in asking for more, but they never say how much is enough.” Or this one: “we would like to fully fund education, but to do so we would have to drastically cut other basic services.” That one is particularly frustrating when combined with this view: “the $611 million gap has nothing to do with earlier cuts to income and energy taxes. It is entirely caused by the drop in oil prices.”

[pullquote]Many legislators did not believe there was an education crisis, or treated us as enemy lobbyists coming in ‘with the talking points they gave you.'”[/pullquote]On teacher salaries we heard some good ones: “they are only low in the region in dollar terms.” When a new teacher explained to one representative that she had a college degree and only made $32,000, he replied “but you knew that going in, didn’t you?” As for the payroll deduction issue, one senator allowed that it should not have been virtually limited to OEA, but provided a general argument that “the state should not be in the business of managing pay deductions.” Excuse me, but how can you apply your general principle to only one organization?

It wasn’t uniformly hostile. Several legislators expressed sympathy, but pointed out that they don’t see or hear from teachers enough. One legislator seemed to apologize for the supermajority, and asked for ideas about sensible bills to improve conditions for educators. But just as many did not believe there was an education crisis, or treated us as enemy lobbyists coming in “with the talking points they gave you.” For a teacher this can be hard to understand, especially when you look at the yawning gap of 500 unfilled teaching positions in the state. But when you consider the arguments against fully funding public education (public schools are ungodly, private and charter schools are better alternatives, tax cuts are preferable to more school spending, there is money to be made in testing and privatization) you can see why teachers shouldn’t expect the red carpet treatment in Oklahoma City.

No, supporters of public education funding have to become smarter and tougher. We need to stand up every day, not just on rally day, and we need to be a bigger part of the political process, like the bankers and the oilmen. The legislator who gave us the hardest time has been elected four times without ever facing a challenger from either party and has amassed $170,000 in campaign contributions. Why are education advocates giving this man a pass, and who is giving him all this money when he doesn’t need to campaign? What it comes down to is a failure of Oklahomans to practice democracy in their own state. As a social studies teacher, I see it boiling down to a need for our side to engage in the political thicket, to ask the tough questions and to make arguments that will stick with voting Oklahomans, and that also means increasing the number of Okies who vote.

Otherwise, it’s goodbye, Mr. Chips.

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The opinions stated in guest articles are not necessarily those of OK Policy, its staff, or its board. To see our guidelines for blog submissions, click here.

5 thoughts on “Mr. Chips goes to Oklahoma City (Guest post: John Waldron)

  1. We are at, indeed past, the crisis point. We have got to change the way we do things in Oklahoma. We need supporters of education to file for office, to run against the incumbent know-nothings and those who just sit on their hands and act powerless. When the powerful and wealthy, who send their kids to private school or home school, are running the show, the rest of us and our children suffer. Please join in a loud shout to change the current makeup of our legislature. Vote for those who promise to stop the tax cuts, who promise to increase State funding. We have seen the mess of the current leadership. IT’S TIME FOR CHANGE!

  2. John:
    Please when you write a blog on the legislators that are against public education, list their names. Not only would it help people in their own district to find a more suportive candidate but it would also let the rest of the state know about those who are continuing to punish our children with unwarrented and inappropriate tests.
    When we started SS PAAT three years ago our main thrust was to let the legislators hear the voice of parents because we were told by them that teachers had no credence. Now that parents have become vocal, they have switched their tune and want to hear from teachers. It is interesting that this year the rally was both teachers and parents and the only outcome was to take away the right of direct deposit of teachers’ dues to OEA. We can tell how much the core group of legislators are controlled by outside interests like ALEC.
    Of course our deficit in this state is because of the tax cuts to income and energy taxes. Did these help those making under $50,000 a year? Of course not. This helped the top 1% in Oklahoma and corporations like the oil companies who make millions if not billions of dollars in profit a year. So how do we educate people to understand that Oklahoma tax cuts have been the leading cause over the last 2-3 years in causing the deficit which is not only hurting education but is crippling our ability to take care of the people of Oklahoma with proper roads, health, welfare and support for our tourist sectors.
    Getting people into the legislature that would be good is almost impossible as we found out when Melissa Abdo ran in Jenks for the open house seat for that area. She was what we needed an outspoken critic of the reform movement in education and was on her way to winning the seat when outside money came into her primary opponent’s campaign! Yes, big bucks won again.
    Oklahomans you must get smart!! If you make under 100K a year, you must get out and vote to save the services that only a state government can afford: good public school systems, safe and dependable roads, protective services like police and fire, a safety net for those who are elderly or down on their luck, health services, public radio and TV, fine arts, and parks and recreational services. All of these are not based on profit but on helping our state become the best it can be.

  3. Linda:

    You made very good points, and I appreciate your response. I wanted to avoid getting into personalities in the article, but here are the names of the people I spoke to: Rep. Proctor (very supportive), Rep. Henke (also supportive), Sen. Crain (his was the comment about salaries being low only in dollar terms) and Rep. Kirby (he asked the new teacher whether she knew salaries would be low going in, and he is the one who has not been challenged in his four races). If you are interested in seeing my FB posts on each of those meetings, send me a message at

    I agree that we need to be active in electoral politics to defend not just education, but ALL public services.

    John Waldron

  4. I wish you had given the names of the legislators who did not support the teachers’ views about education. We need to know and vote against them. Also publicize their views.

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