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I’m a Teacher from Oklahoma. This is Why I Plan on Striking

"Let's put it that way: It's about more than just a raise for teachers; it's about an education system that is good for kids."

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Oklahoman teachers are on the brink of a strike. Much like their West Virginia predecessors, teachers in Oklahoma haven’t had a raise in ten years. Many don’t even have a comma in their paycheck and are on state-level assistance. The education budget has been slashed by 28 percent and class sizes are increasing. All the while, just across state lines, teachers are paid almost $10,000 more a year. This reality has made teacher shortages rampant and the district is losing educators every single day. In fact, 2,000 active Oklahoma teachers are “emergency certified,” meaning they have no training for the job. Some classrooms reported having five different teachers for one single year.

Although Oklahoma legislature passed a spending bill for educators on Wednesday, which included a $6,000 raise, it does not deal with the issues of their budget in general, class size, or the districts that have had to convert to four day school weeks due to lack of funding. Until a better budget package is passed, educators are still planning on striking on Monday, April 2nd. Brendan Jarvis, an educator and board member for the Oklahoma Education Association, will be one of them.

Jarvis, a single dad with two sophomores in Oklahoma public school, has seen firsthand efforts by educators to get a pay raise. He lived, for a long time, just above the federal poverty level. His concerns about education in Oklahoma are not just about the money, though. They’re also about the students, who are the real victims. Here, Jarvis talks about the take-home pay for teachers in Oklahoma, why it’s so hard to pass laws that increase funding, and why the walk-out is a last resort for teachers.

Most teachers in Oklahoma are living check to check. Especially if they’re single parents. One thing about pay is it limits your freedom in life. If you have a college degree, and you have a job, you’re expected to make enough where you can be independent if you want to be.

For the last ten years, Oklahoma teachers have not received a raise from the state. They’ve not met a minimum salary schedule, which you have to make. That has not been raised in ten years. At the same time, they’ve cut funding for Oklahoma schools by 20 percent.

I’m okay with living on less. But teachers are leaving the state.

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The Oklahoma Educators Association had a plan, that had been put together last summer. This is really more of a cure than a Band-aid. It calls for $10,000 teacher raises over three years, and $5,000 raises for support staff. It also includes state employee raises of $7,500. That includes a lot of the supports for schools like Department of Human Services, mental health, and healthcare. We know that kids need these in order to succeed in school. We’re also asking for $200 million to make up for cuts to education over the last decade.

I’m a single dad with two sophomores. They have their mom, who has a job. I live in an apartment. I drive a ’97 Mercury Mountaineer. I’m not complaining about my salary. I’m okay with living on less. But teachers are leaving the state. This really is a child-centered action. If I just wanted a raise, I’d already be living in Texas. Let’s put it that way. It’s about more than just a raise for teachers. It’s about an education system that is good for kids.

We’re up to almost 2,000 emergency certified teachers — someone with a college degree that gets certified and can teach without any training to be a teacher. They have two years to get that training. Obviously, we appreciate people wanting to fill those gaps, because we have hundreds of unfilled positions in Oklahoma. Oklahoma City has like 300 unfilled positions. Tulsa Public has 2,000. In my suburban district, it’s like 22, which doesn’t seem that bad. But for a district that teachers like to work in? Twenty-two unfilled positions shows you how bad the pay is. The teacher shortage is intensified with that effect because it’s the lowest pay in the nation.

Let’s put it that way. It’s about more than just a raise for teachers. It’s about an education system that is good for kids.

Teachers take-home pay is not good. When you see an average teacher’s salary in Oklahoma of like 42,000 or whatever it is, that includes almost 7,000 dollars of the insurance benefits that the state pays. Which is a good benefit. But if you see that a teacher makes, say, 35,000 dollars, they’re really making 28,000 dollars. There are a lot of people who don’t have a comma in their twice a monthly paycheck. There are teachers who get 1,200 dollars a month to live on. Many teachers are well below double the poverty line. Which means they are eligible for state assistance. For years, I was just over that line, so I didn’t get assistance for my kids, in that zone where you have low pay but you don’t qualify for assistance. Both of those things are happening.

It’s bad for the state to have people with a college degree that qualify for public assistance. That’s hitting the state on two ends. They’re paying the teacher’s salary and they’re paying for public assistance.

We are losing teachers every day to other states, because we are the lowest paid in the region. In addition to that, our schools are funded lower so it’s a more difficult job. The class sizes are bigger. We don’t have as many resources as teachers in neighboring states. Oklahoma just hasn’t committed to education for the last 10 years.

We have the highest standard in the nation for raising revenue. You have to get 76 out of 101 members of the house to agree to any revenue-raising measures. It’s a near-impossible standard so it’s never done. They don’t have the same standard for cutting taxes. So what’s happened over the last decade is taxes have been cut. We’ve had 4 billion dollars of cuts over the last 10 years to revenue. That’s why it’s not just schools that are suffering. State employees haven’t had a raise. We turned down the Medicaid expansion. We just don’t have revenue in the state and then all of our core services are suffering. Teachers finally decided to stand up and say, “This is hurting our kids.”

The goal is not a walkout. The goal is to get funding. We’d prefer to do that before a walkout, if necessary.

Six weeks ago, there started to be a lot of talk on social media about how teachers need to walk out. A teacher from Stillwater started a Facebook page called ‘Teacher Walk Out, The Time Is Now.’ Within two days, it had 40,000 members. The Teacher’s Union in the state responded to the members by saying, we will lead the walkout.  We need to do something to make Oklahoma a better place for kids. The walkout was a last resort.

The goal is not a walkout. The goal is to get funding. We’d prefer to do that before a walkout, if necessary. There is a consensus among teachers that 10,000 dollars is what it’s going to take to keep teachers in Oklahoma. 3,000 won’t keep teachers in Oklahoma. 5,000 won’t keep teachers in Oklahoma. The only thing that’s lacking right now is the will of the legislators to make it happen. So, we want the legislature to be responsive to what the people want. Teacher raise has overwhelming support from the public and all they have to do is do what they need to do make that happen and make it a better state. It’s really about making Oklahoma a better place for children.

— As Told To Lizzy Francis