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THE CITY REBORN FROM THE ASHES OF AMERICA'S MOST DISASTROUS FOREST FIRE
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From My Window

Issue Date: April 12, 2018

Grandma's Not Happy

By Jane Thibodeau Martin,

It is a fact of life that someone has to come in last. So, one of the states must be the state that pays teachers the least; and pays the smallest amount per pupil for public education. But it is not a good feeling when that state is the state you live in, and in which your granddaughter may someday go to school. My son and my daughter-in-law are both teachers in Oklahoma; both work with at-risk populations, and both demonstrate over and over how much they care about the kids they teach. I share this in the interest of full disclosure.

It's hard to be certain exactly where my current home state of Oklahoma is, but on most data charts we have been #49 of 50 in teacher pay, and #47 of 50 in per pupil support. School funding has been cut every budget year for over a decade, the same amount of time teachers have been waiting for a raise. In that time we added more than 15,000 kids to the school system. There are many reasons for that decline in financial support, but one reason is the singular focus on tax cuts in the state legislature; spearheaded by our governor.

There are a million ills that result. (And it's not just schools, when your state troopers are asked not to drive more than 100 miles in a shift to save fuel.) I'll spare you all the details but here's just a few: our teachers can cross the border into any nearby state and make $10,000 to $12,000 or more per year than they get paid here. Texas, in particular, aggressively recruits our teachers via interviews of education major seniors at our colleges and on highway billboards. One of their recruits this year was our "state teacher of the year" for 2017. One ex-Oklahoma teacher I talked with has moved to Texas and she's making $20,000 a year more there than she did in Oklahoma. "I hated to leave my kids, but I had to think about being able to provide a retirement for myself," she told me.

Because teachers are leaving at a record-breaking turnover rate of (depending on whose figures you look at) 10 " 25% per year; our schools have so many vacancies that the state uses a process called "emergency certificates" to put people into classrooms who do not meet the state's own standards for teachers. Even with almost 2,000 emergency certificate teachers this fall, we still started this school year short about 900 teachers, so many teacher's class size increased and classes of 35 or more than 40 are no longer unusual. The demand for teachers in our region means that our state can't compete with neighboring states. It's as simple as that " demand and supply. But this is NOT just a teacher pay issue.

The lack of school funding/per pupil support results in not enough desks and chairs in those crowded rooms; and textbooks that are so out of date that one still in use in Ada, OK was once assigned to the famous country singer and Voice coach, Blake Shelton. He's 41 years old " but there is no money for books. Teachers pay for essential supplies themselves, or start "Go Fund Me" websites to ask for donations. Over the last decade, our school funding has decreased 28% in "real dollars," more than any other state in the U.S.

I hope this helps you understand why you've seen my state on the national news, because our teachers walked off the job at the beginning of last week; and they vow not to go back until funding is restored.

Now, I am not typically politically active. I do vote; and I have been known to write to my legislators here in Oklahoma. But this school thing really, really bothered me. Year after year, promises were made to start restoring funding, and year after year of budget "holes," those promises were broken. It is so troubling, and so damaging, I did something I haven't done since 1976. I made myself a sign, I drove the hour and a half to the state capital, and I joined the protest on Friday. It made for a tiring day; but I haven't done anything in a long time I found more uplifting. That may seem strange, but here's what I observed.

I traveled alone. I never ran across my local school, because there were thousands and thousands of people at the capital. No matter. Every person I talked to was friendly. They were heartbroken, determined, intelligent, and kind. They were teachers, support staff, coaches, parents, students, and grandparents like me. They were lifting their voices and signs peacefully. They cleaned up their trash, they thanked the police, the bus drivers, and everyone else who was there. They shared food, stories and hugs. In short, they are exactly the kind of people you want with our children in school.

I stood in line for 90 minutes to enter the capital. It was one in, one out, since they were at the rated building safe capacity already, there were so many people there to meet with their legislators and make their voices heard. I did not stay inside long, as I wanted to make room for a teacher; but it was one of the most inspirational things I'd ever seen. I heard one sad story after another " a special education teacher who lost her aide to budget cuts, and has 15 kids in her class because the other S.E. teacher was recruited out of state and not replaced; the senior whose geometry teacher left for more money and respect in Arkansas; the student said she'd had six subs in five weeks and now the class is being taught by a history teacher, as no replacement geometry teacher can be found. A teacher showing pictures of the folding chairs and tables she bought at a rummage sale so all of her students would have a place to write and something to sit on. It's not okay with me; so my sign said "Grandma's not happy," and I am not. But I was inspired and humbled by my day of protest. I haven't done anything as rewarding in a very long time.

As I write this on Sunday, the teachers are going to the capital for their sixth day on Monday. Surveys show 70 percent of Oklahoma residents support them. So while you will read, or hear on national news they did pass a teacher pay raise, they repealed the bill that was going to fund it 24 hours later after the tourism industry complained. So another empty promise has been made, and more trust in the politicians has been lost. I will be attending a funeral Monday, but if there has been no progress made I plan on returning to the capital on Tuesday.

My father used to say "Social Security is a contract between the generations." I am happy he's not alive to hear it referred to as an "entitlement," with discussions about eliminating or reducing it. My thought is public education is also a contract between the generations. Taxpayers of my time in school paid for my excellent education at Peshtigo High School. It's not right that Oklahoma's young people are considered a cost center, and not an investment in our state. As I have written to my legislators and to our governor " "This is not a good look for the state of Oklahoma. It is not a good look for our legislators. And it is not a good look for you personally. What business, what new resident would move here now, after seeing how we have mishandled our children " our future?"

Column readers in Wisconsin " thank your teachers. Do not take them for granted. They deserve our respect.

" I am an avid reader. I recently finished a book that fascinated me " "'The Death and Life of the Great Lakes" by Dan Egan. The book is a little bit history, a little bit geography and a lot of science " but written in layman's terms. It explains some of the phenomena I remember growing up loving the lakes " the horrible alewife die-offs, the rampant pollution of the 60's, and the inadvertent and deliberate introduction of invasive species. I think those who champion clean water would really enjoy this book, which is both profoundly depressing and yet hopeful.

" A big thank you to readers Bonnee, Joan and Terry, who all sent advice on obtaining perfect hard-boiled eggs. I intend to try all three of your methods which are, of course, totally different!

You can reach me for commentary, alternative viewpoints or ideas at this e-mail address: Janiethibmartin@gmail.com.


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