As the state Legislature works to fund education, districts and individual teachers are following the situation closely to determine their next move.
Local districts have been sending teacher delegations to the Capitol to march and meet with lawmakers throughout the week. Some, like Sulphur, shut down to participate in the statewide teacher walkout. Others make the decision day-to-day, keeping parents in the loop with robocalls and emails. Those decisions hinge on key pieces of legislation that could provide long-term solutions for education funding.
Ardmore Educators Association President Amanda Cramer said depending on what happens on Friday and Monday, the walkout may end next week.
“They’ve had the (Friday) special session, which is rare,” Cramer said. “According to state Representative (Scott) Inman, Monday’s kind of the do-or-die day. If these bills don’t go through on Monday, they probably won’t be heard again.”
The Senate passed an internet sales tax expected to generate millions for education funding on Friday. Other bills would institute taxes on ball and dice games and remove a capital gains exemption.
“If they don’t pass, we have to come up with a whole new plan, and that takes longer than what we’ve got left in session,” Cramer said. “Everything we’ve been asking for is on the table.”
Cramer said Ardmore teachers are prepared to keep sending delegates for as long as it takes, with contingency plans to send teachers to Oklahoma City weekly or monthly, depending on the situation.
“We’re a big enough district that we have worked out a long-term plan for delegates,” Cramer said. “We’re not going to stop going.”
Some Ardmore City Schools teachers have driven back and forth every day this week to demonstrate. Some are using professional days, but most are using personal days or unpaid leave. A large group of support staff went to the state Capitol on Monday, but many can’t go for multiple days because they can’t afford to miss work. Ardmore Middle School teacher Sarah Watts said the sustained demonstration is only growing, which came as a surprise to many people in a state as conservative as Oklahoma.
“It is a kind, wonderful state,” Watts said. “We support each other, we support our kids, and when you’re 49th in the country it’s pretty sad.”
Watts and other middle school teachers went to the Capitol on Wednesday and are making plans to return on Monday. AMS Behavior Interventionist Regina Benson said people’s attitudes toward the demonstrations have been positive, with local businesses going out of their way to help demonstrators. On their last trip, a Carl’s Jr restaurant near the Capitol building let teachers use their parking lot because other lots and the shuttles taking people to the Capitol were packed.
“As soon as we walked in, they said ‘y’all are teachers?’ ” Benson said. “They told us we were welcome to park our car there.”
At 7:55 a.m. on Friday, the building was already at capacity. Construction workers who are renovating the Capitol building have slowed or stopped their work to show solidarity. Mazio’s, McDonalds, Ted’s and other restaurants have donated food, and other groups are handing out gift cards to help teachers pay for gas. Veterans groups, teamsters, and a group of female lawyers are all planning to attend the rally in solidarity next week.
“When you’re there talking to people, it’s like you’re not with strangers,” AMS teacher Jaysa Jenkins said. “We’re all so connected and everyone’s so willing to help each other, conversation is so easy to make. You’re with thousands of people you’ve never met and it’s like you all teach in the same district.”
Jenkins said she’s an alternatively certified teacher who’s working toward her teaching certification. She majored in political science and started law school, but always wanted to teach.
“I tell everyone I would have probably gone to school to be a teacher had I not grown up with people always asking me why I’d want to do that, pushing me away from it, telling me I have to do something that makes money,” Jenkins said. “If we fail our students, we’re failing our state.”
As the crowd grew throughout the week, rumors about misconduct or violence in the Capitol building gained steam, but have proven false. The Oklahoma Highway Patrol released a statement explaining they’ve made no arrests and have only stepped in to help with medical emergencies and one instance of a child getting lost. The state fire marshal had to start restricting the number of people inside the building due to safety concerns, but only because of the overcrowded conditions inside. AMS teacher Tamara Herald said respectful protest has been key.
“It’s important for my kids to know you can be a part of democracy, you can stand up for what you believe in and not be violent, not destroy things, not act inappropriately and still get your point across,” she said.