While public school teachers walkout for increased salary and funding, Dr. Elizabeth Smith gives her perspective on the walkout and its goals.
Elizabeth Smith and her daughter Grace, who is out of school due to the teacher walkout, marched with 30,000 Oklahoman educators and supporters.
As chair of the TU department of education and staunch supporter of increased public school funding in the state, Smith described the atmosphere of the capital during the first day of the walkout as, “very energetic, very hopeful, […] very uplifting.”
Smith recounted a large outpouring of support. A live band played and teachers were joined by students, parents and coverage from national media.w
Grace, currently in the third grade, carried a sign that read, “Am I worth $2,254 less per year than a student in Kansas?” in reference to the low state budget in Oklahoma for per-pupil funding, which is about $3000 shy of the national average.
Smith said that undercutting the feelings of positivity and support was the knowledge that things still had to be done.
“When you talked to one of the legislators, they really emphasized the amount of work left to be done in order to meet the ask from the teachers,” she said.
There are several bills that could free up the money needed to meet the funding and salary raises asked for by teachers, including a capital gains exemption bill proposed by the Democrats which would generate about $120 million.
However, Smith expressed doubt in the possibility of the bill going through, saying that “it’s gonna take something major for that to be heard.”
“I do wonder if it might go beyond what we were thinking,” she said. “I am afraid that because the legislature did act in terms of teacher pay raise, that [the attitude of the legislature is] that ‘we’ve already done everything we can do.’”
But teachers, Smith said, “are saying it’s not enough because you forgot about our kids. You’ve cut funding 28 percent percent in the last ten years. The $50 million included in the ask is pennies compared to what we need.”
“If you have a kid in a public school, you have seen the cuts,” Smith said. “I see the difference in terms of specials: usually it’s art they don’t have, sometimes it’s computer class or music. Our kids are missing out on those things.”
Grace, who wants to be a scientist when she grows up, misses out on having a STEM lab because her elementary school can’t afford the staff or equipment necessary.
Smith said the success of the West Virginia strike was influential to the start of the Oklahoman walkouts.
Smith equally attributed the increase of emergency teaching certificates to the rising tensions that led to the walkout. In 2011, only 32 people held emergency teaching certificates in Oklahoma. As of 2018, nearly 2,000 emergency teaching certifications have been licensed in the state. That means that nearly 2,000 teachers in the state are in the classroom without having attended any sort of extended teaching program.
Smith commented that “we have teachers teaching without any experience … and we have more experienced teachers leaving … parents are seeing that their favorite teachers are moving out of state … parents are seeing that teachers can go work at QuikTrip and make more money. People are starting to feel it.”
With the approximately $6,000 pay raise passed when the walkout began, the average teacher’s salary is still below that of bordering states.
Smith asserted that “there are plenty of kids who, if they didn’t have public schools as an option, there would be no other option. If we [Americans] want to claim to be a democracy, if we want to have an educated public, we have to invest in public schools.”
While Smith sees the walkout as a fantastic first step, she argued that it won’t immediately solve all of the problems plaguing the public school system.
“Whatever we do in the session won’t be enough. We need a long-term revenue solution,” Smith said.
Across the nation, enrollment in education programs has declined 25 percent over the last five years alone. However, with proper funding, better paid positions could be made available for teachers. This would in turn naturally reduce class sizes and create room for more diverse subject matters in classrooms, like art and STEM labs. But before any of this can happen, political actions must be taken to guarantee the necessary funding and salaries.
Though there is still much to be done, Smith said the continued momentum of the walkout “makes [her] really proud to be an educator.”