Shala Marshall has waited tables, tutored students, and sold cosmetics and consignment clothes throughout her 17 years of teaching.
“My heart and my passion is in educating kids,” she told Rewire.News in an interview. “And no one goes into education for the money. We just don’t. We do it because we have a passion for kids, for helping kids, for helping kids learn.”
Oklahoma teachers rank 49th overall in pay, according to figures released in 2017 from the National Education Association.
Marshall, the recipient of the 2017 Teacher of the Year award for her school district and a statewide Teacher of the Year finalist, earns less than the average annual salary for teachers in the state.
Across the state of Oklahoma, teachers say they are fed up with empty promises from their legislators. Emboldened by the gains made by their counterparts in West Virginia, who received the promise of a 5 percent pay raise, teachers across Oklahoma are contemplating a walkout next month if they don’t receive a pay raise.
Teachers in Oklahoma haven’t received a pay increase since 2008. Though there have been attempts in the state legislature over the years to raise salaries, all have failed. Tax breaks for the oil and gas industry as well as for the state’s top income earners have forced drastic cuts to the state’s social services, including education.
The lack of investment in education also extends to students. Per-pupil spending in Oklahoma ranks near the bottom of the country—the fourth lowest. Many school districts have gone to four-days-per-week instruction as a means to save money. The dismal public school system has left some students unprepared for college. Nearly four out of ten students educated in public schools must take remedial courses once they start university.
Now, the state’s largest teacher association, the Oklahoma Education Association (OEA), is calling for teachers to receive a $6,000 raise by April 1 or a walkout will occur.
“After years of doing more with less, of educating our students with out-of-date curriculum and no textbooks, after packing our classes with so many students that we can’t possibly provide each one with the individual time and attention they need to have success, after seeing thousands of our colleagues leave the state for higher pay, after watching our critical support professionals who ensure our students are fed and safe take on two and three extra jobs to make ends meet, after watching our students suffer and our legislature fail time and time again to do something about it, Oklahoma educators have reached a breaking point,” OEA President Alicia Priest said during a news conference. “We cannot, no, we will not, allow our students to go without any longer.”
OEA’s proposal calls for a $10,000 teacher pay increase over three years, including a $6,000 raise for the fiscal year 2019 budget, which starts July 1. It also calls for a $5,000 pay increase for full-time support professionals such as school secretaries, custodians, bus drivers, and food service workers and $200 million to restore public school funding.
“If the legislature cannot properly fund education and core state services by the legal deadline of April 1, we are prepared to close schools and stay at the Capitol until it gets done,” Priest said in a statement last week.
Business, community and civic organizations, and some educators came together last month to support a plan known as Step Up Oklahoma, which would have funded $5,000 teacher pay raises. It failed to get the necessary votes in the legislature, though.
“When House Bill 1033, the Step Up Oklahoma plan, failed to pass in February, it was kind of the final straw for a lot of people,” said Teresa Danks, a third-grade teacher in an interview with Rewire.News. “The rage and the anger just kind of came to a boiling point.”
Last summer, Danks stood on the side of the road, sign in hand, panhandling for money for her classroom.
To her surprise, cars stopped, with some drivers giving her money.
“I didn’t really think it through very much,” she said. “All of a sudden, my heart was beating. I had no idea how these people would react to me and all of a sudden I got really nervous. I was overwhelmed by the love and support I was getting from people.”
A photo of Danks on the side of the road with her sign spread online, and she later was able to start a nonprofit to help other teachers, but what she most wanted to accomplish was to bring awareness to the plight of teachers in Oklahoma.
At Danks’ district, Tulsa Public Schools, teachers are “working the contract,” meaning they are only working the required amount of time in their contract. No grading at night or emailing parents on the weekends.
For some teachers, the decision to conduct a walkout has been a tough one. Marshall teaches AP Spanish, and her students have their test the first week of May. Any school day missed will affect their readiness for the test, she said.
“These tests means a lot for these kids,” she added. Marshall tells students that she’s going to support her colleagues but work to get in preparation time for her students.
Sarah Singleton, a kindergarten and first grade reading specialist at Noble Public Schools, was initially against the idea of a walkout, thinking it would hurt the students who depend on the schools for meals and other necessities.
But as she has thought more about it, she said she realized it’s hurting students in the long run not to do anything because so many teachers are leaving for higher paying jobs in other states.
“Something needs to happen,” she said.