For the first time in more than two decades, an estimated 25,000 educators, parents and students gathered on the steps of the state capitol at 10:30 a.m. March 31 to rally for public school education in Oklahoma and the children it serves.
"We were not there for ourselves. I was there for Osage Hills, for my students, for your child and my children," explained Osage Hills Elementary School Math Teacher Mindy Englett. "It really bothers me that there are legislators out there who thought it was selfish for us to be there."
To bring attention to their true purpose, a group of teachers purchased and wore tee shirts designed by Englett, which read "In it for the outcome — not the income."
In describing the highlights of the rally, Englett said, "The most amazing speaker I heard was a high school student who compared herself to a flower and teachers to gardeners."
According to the speaker, teachers have the power to help students blossom or wilt depending on the resources they have, Englett said.
Explaining how the rally came about, Pawhuska Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Landon Berry said, "Several months ago the Education Coalition contacted me saying that there might be a rally."
Berry, who has been in education for more than 22 years, said, "The last big rally was over House Bill (H.B.) 1017."
H.B. 1017 sought to lower class sizes and increase funding, explained Osage Hills Schools Superintendent/Principal Jeannie O’Daniel, an educator for 25 years.
A recent House Bill has gained ground since Monday’s rally. H.B. 2642 provides for "small, guaranteed increase each year through the state funding formula," O’Daniel explained.
The conundrum is that even if H.B. 2642 becomes law, it will take time to gain the ground lost.
"They’ve been cutting us for years. They can’t replace it all in one year," O’Daniel said.
Those interviewed echoed concerns with a central theme — the state mandated curriculum has changed and those changes have not been facilitated through funding or curriculum.
Pawhuska High School Principal Joe Sindelar said, "There’s a whole new philosophy of education, but we can’t even get the textbooks and resource materials to implement it. Where is the funding for those materials?"
Osage Hills Superintendent/Principal Jeannie O’Daniel, "We’ve had reform after reform coming very rapidly and there’s no funding to back it up; and if there has been, it is because they’ve taken funding away from somewhere else. We adopt textbooks on a six-year cycle, one subject per year, but we’re supposed to implement Common Core all at once."
The resulting budget challenges are only part of the problem, because textbooks containing the Common Core curriculum simply don’t exist in many cases.
"We’re scrambling to find resources that really teach the Common Core content and concepts," O’Daniel said. "The cover of the textbook changes, but that doesn’t mean the content of the textbook has changed."
"I agree with the general objective of Common Core, analyzing and critical thinking, but how are we going to get there? We’re not being given the tools to get there," Sindelar observed.
To complicate matters, the name of the Common Core curriculum has changed recently. Math and language arts are still referred to as "Common Core Curriculum," but the other subjects have been renamed "Oklahoma Academic Standards," O’Daniel explained.
One might wonder without textbooks how schools are informed about the mandated Core Curriculum and Oklahoma Academic Standards.
"The standards are provided by the state education department and tell what concepts should be taught in what grade," O’Daniel said.
With legislation to revoke it being considered, some wonder if Common Core will remain in place.
"There is talk of repealing Common Core standards, so districts are now up in the air as to what the required standards will be," O’Daniel said.
Understanding what her district faces, Math teacher Mindy Englett works to conserve resources for the benefit of her students.
"With budget cuts, resource funds are limited and it’s tougher to justify the purchase of new textbooks for a curriculum that may be repealed," Englett said.
No matter what challenges her district faces, O’Daniel’s attitude is positive.
"I have good teachers and that makes all the difference in the world," O’Daniel said beaming.
Describing the situation his school district faces, Dr. Berry said, "This comes down to a lack of money to educate kids. I’ve been a superintendent for 12 years and the money goes down every year. You have to reduce staff and class size increases … It’s getting to be a critical stage."
Berry said that Pawhuska Public lost over half a million in revenue for the 2013-14 school year.
"We’re going to cut $200,000 more from next year’s budget," he added.
Summing up the reason for the rally, O’Daniel said, "We’ve all reached a breaking point and that’s why we went. We’ve had major changes in the educational system in the past four years. None of these is bad, but they’ve all come at the same time without the funds to implement them."
Dr. Berry shared a statistic: "Since 2009, percentage-wise, we’ve gone through more cuts than any other state in the nation. In 2013, we were number three, and this year we’re number one according to the Oklahoma Policy Institute."
Berry said he spoke to three state legislators on March 28 at the Pawhuska Chamber of Commerce Gala about the problem. Berry’s message to the legislators: "It’s a hard choice, but we make hard choices every day. You have to step up and do what’s right for kids."
Sindelar said that he spoke to State Representative Dennis Casey recently about his concerns.
"He’s very pro-education. He gets it," Sindelar said. "I asked Dennis, ‘Does this make an impact?’ He said, ‘Actually, it does.’ Teachers and administrators have an impact, but parents also make an impact … If parents call legislators to say, ‘We don’t have textbooks or resources, it really has an impact.’"
Educators are asking their legislators important questions that deserve answers. What are the ripple effects of state legislators placing education low on the list? Are teachers drawn to work in Oklahoma public schools if the state doesn’t pay competitive wages?
"When I first went into teaching there were hundreds of applicants for each job. Now there are just two or three and schools advertise early for positions," Englett said.
"My niece went to Missouri to work as a teacher and makes $10,000 more there," said Osage Hills Support staff member DeDe McMillan.
Another ripple effect could be a reduction in tax revenue in the years to come.
Dr. Berry said, "We’ve got kids out there who need to be educated so they can work, pay taxes and pay in to Social Security for those retiring."
It took a lot for educators to get to the point that they felt a rally was necessary.
Englett said, "If we don’t stand up now, what’s going to happen to future generations?"