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Countdown: 8 Days

March 25, 2018 Comments off

Due to their nearly hopeless situation, and in part because they are trapped in the Dust Bowl, the Joads set out for California. Along with thousands of other “Okies”, they seek jobs, land, dignity, and a future.
-John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath (1939)

Tomorrow, all across Oklahoma, we will have school. Buses will drive through neighborhoods and collect children. Cafeterias will prepare and serve breakfasts and lunches. Teachers will teach. Nurses will treat scrapes. Secretaries will answer parents’ questions.

Hopefully, a week from tomorrow, the same thing will happen.

I copied the tweet at the top of this post because I like literature. For that matter, I also like history. Oh, and I like patterns. Events that repeat themselves, even in unfamiliar iterations, string together all of human existence.

Grapes of Wrath

It’s pretty easy to see why the quote works as a proxy for the current condition of public schools in Oklahoma. Many of the young people we educate in our public schools and train to become teachers in our universities know that leaving the state to start a teaching career makes much more sense than staying here. Over 35 years, if teachers in Texas make $20,000 more than teachers in Oklahoma…well, do the math.

When I started writing this, I googled the quote at the top for accuracy. Once I verified it, the first article in my search caught my attention. It was a 1990 New York Times piece titled, “Why Steinbeck’s Okies Speak to Us Today.” I clicked on it, expecting to find an article about the last mass teacher walkout, which was also in 1990.

Times.png

Instead, the article is a riveting analysis of the novel. Here’s an excerpt:

The true lesson of the times, he now suggested, was the importance of community – not community defined in traditional, geographical terms; not the community of a neighborhood, or a town, or a region; but a community of the human spirit, for which the only real model was the family.

Obviously, this post – just like every conversation I’ve had with anyone over the last couple of weeks – is about the threat promise of teachers walking off the job April 2nd if the Legislature doesn’t find a way to fund raises for teachers and support staff, along with operational costs. It’s a simple request with a nine-digit price tag – a HIGH nine-digit price tag.

The need requires little explanation at this point. Just in case you need a refresher, though, watch this Moore High School student tell us what we need to hear:

I’m losing count of the articulate, passionate Facebook posts I’ve seen from teachers about this current situation – not to mention posts from politicians expressing frustration over the lack of movement in the Legislature.

I’ve seen several plans, but no bills. We’ll know something is happening when we see bills. After the failure of two separate revenue plans in the two extraordinary sessions the governor has called, I don’t think we’ll see a bill until the House leadership thinks they have the votes to pass it.

From what I’ve been told, the Legislature has three days to avoid the teacher walkout. Someone needs to author a bill. It needs to pass the House and then the Senate. That’s the short version; everything our government does is always a little more complicated than that.

With that, I’ll close with another quote from the book:

And the little screaming fact that sounds through all history: repression works only to strengthen and knit the repressed.

We’re a week away, stronger, resolved, and hopefully relentless.

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Countdown: 14 Days

March 19, 2018 2 comments

After a months-long blogging hiatus, I wrote a little piece last night about the looming work-stoppage. I gave it a simplistic title, Countdown: 15 Days. The nomenclature is catchy, I see.

IMG_3246

Please understand, friends, that this doesn’t mean I’ll be writing a daily post until this is over.

Tonight, I don’t want to focus on the money. That’s important, but it’s only a part of the conversation. I want to go back about exactly six years.

The State Board of Education was to hold an open meeting to hear public comments on the proposed rules for the first round of A-F Report Cards. The date was Monday, March 19, 2012.

I wasn’t there, but then again, neither was the State Board of Education. Counsel for the State Board of Education was there in their place. Fortunately, Claudia Swisher wrote about the day in one of her first blog posts:

The Board Room was packed. Lisa Enders, the General Council, chaired the meeting. No Board members were present, but Enders assured us the Board will get the video and all the written responses before their next meeting…NEXT week.

This was typical of how educators were treated during the administration of the previous state superintendent. Somebody would make a perfunctory effort to gather input from stakeholders, even some actual educators. Then, from what I have gathered, that input was shoved into a file cabinet, lit aflame, and hurtled from the top of Mt. Scott.

This isn’t smart people. We’re pretty much in a perpetual burn ban. It would be better to hide those good ideas and meaningful concerns in a warehouse, ala Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Raiders Warehouse

Claudia went on to note concerns expressed by legislators, community leaders, educators, and parents. While all of those concerns were ignored, this moment was the impetus for several years of effective – if often disorganized – activism in the #oklaed community.

Inspired by Claudia’s writing, I started blogging. So did Rob Miller, and countless other pro-public education advocates. Over the next few years, we had moments. We had victories. Some were in the legislative process. Some were at the ballot box.

Policy-wise, we still have to deal with some reforms that don’t make sense to educators and that keep us from truly focusing on children. I shudder to think of all the state testing pep rallies that will have to be rescheduled because of the work-stoppage.

Still, other than with funding, we’re in a better place than we were in 2012. I’ll point to two specific moments that mattered. For both, I’ll point to blog posts I wrote in 2014 and then explain how they’re relevant now.

In May 2014, the biggest battle we were facing was to let parents have a say in whether or not their third graders would be retained because of one test on a single day. The Oklahoman and the Tulsa World chimed in on it frequently. Here’s what happened:

The House and Senate overwhelmingly passed HB 2625, adding parents to the retention/promotion committees. Fallin vetoed it. The House and Senate took about three seconds to override her veto. They didn’t even debate it.

This afternoon, both chambers of the Oklahoma Legislature voted to override Governor Fallin’s veto of HB 2625, which amends the Reading Sufficiency Act.  The vote in the House was 79-17. In the Senate it was 45-2.

Many parents and educators lobbied for today’s action, even after Fallin waited until nearly midnight to officially notify the House of the veto she had announced hours earlier at a press conference. In the end, only a few changed their votes. Before the veto, the combined tally had been 132-7 in favor of the bill. Today, it was 124-19. Maybe the governor, the state superintendent, and their friends at the Oklahoman and OCPA can take solace in the fact that they nearly tripled their vote count from before.

The state superintendent also called the veto override “a pathetic and outrageous step back.” We’ll get to her in a minute.

Passing this bill took courage from quite a few legislators – none more than Rep. Katie Henke. It also took relentless contact from educators and parents who wanted to see the bill passed. This was the first time (in my career) that we have seen the impact we can have when the pro-public education voices of Oklahoma unite.

A month later, we sweetened the pot, when voters relegated the state superintendent to a third-place finish in her own primary. Here’s my closing thought from the night that happened.

It started when we just couldn’t contain ourselves. Our murmurs grew into an eruption. We would not be silenced. We demanded respect.

I would say that was the highlight, so far, of how we can use our collective voices to change the narrative. Sure, there were some legislative seats flipped in 2016, but nothing that has come close to these two moments.

My question to you is what are you willing to do to make sure we’re not ignored this time? Are you willing to call, email, and text your legislators? Are you willing to point out that a plan to plan really isn’t a plan? Are you willing to storm the Capitol, relentlessly, from April 2 onward, and indefinitely?

There are some in the Legislature, as well as many in the cheap seats who doubt your resolve. Policies come and go. We don’t have to fight corporate interests to lobby for sensible change in that arena. Money is a different beast altogether.

As far as I can tell, two things are still true:

  1. Oklahoma’s educators will do anything for their students.
  2. We can all band together when we need to.

I hope I’m right.

Countdown: 15 Days

March 18, 2018 9 comments

Brace yourselves, friends. I think we’re in for a rough one.

In 15 days, we may witness history if teachers across the state walk off the job in protest of years of ineptitude at the Oklahoma Capitol. I know no one who wants this to happen. I’ve been in meeting after meeting with leaders in my district and meeting after meeting with leaders from across the state trying to figure out all of our contingency plans.

What about feeding kids?

What about support employees?

What about the testing window?

What about activities and student trips?

What if it lasts 5 days? 10? 20? More?

What about graduation?

Can we still have prom?

That’s a sample of the issues that we have to consider. Just the same, our board – along with many, many other school boards – has passed a resolution supporting teachers. This is their movement. While many of my superintendent friends wanted a different deadline for the looming walkout, nearly all I know were in agreement that we needed to fall in line behind what our teachers demanded.

Explaining how we got here is pretty simple. The last time the Legislature funded teacher raises was in 2008. Per-pupil funding from that time is significantly higher than it is now. Teacher and support salaries are stagnant. Class sizes are high. Textbooks are in terrible shape.

Ratchet textbooks

Courtesy: @bosticteacher

To their credit, every legislator I know understands that all of these problems are real. Most have voted in favor of one or more proposals to help. Also to be fair, many of those who have voted yes on recent revenue bills voted in favor of last year’s budget that the State Supreme Court unanimously voted to be unconstitutional. And many of the same recent education funding supporters opposed SQ 779 in 2016.

My point is that nobody passes a purity test when it comes to the quest to properly fund public education. Some of the people who voted YES on the step up plan have consistently voted for vouchers and tried to get school consolidation bills heard in the House and Senate. If you pay attention long enough, everyone will make you mad eventually.

Nor is the push for a walkout simply about pay. Over the last several weeks, I’ve heard many legislators and candidates for public office say that they’d like to see additional funding tied to reforms. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to pin any of them down on what reforms they’d like to see. I did see one survey on Facebook, sent out by a group I’d rather not name.

POE survey

Nearly every item on the survey was an insult to the professional educators I know across the state. All make nice distractions and ignore the fact that public education faced a mélange of reforms earlier this decade. A-F Report Cards. Retaining 3rd Graders. Adopting and then eliminating Common Core. Adopting new standards – again.

Going back to 2001 at the federal level, we’ve had No Child Left Behind, Achieving Classroom Excellence, tightly-constructed waivers for NCLB, and the Every Student Succeeds Act.

As education advocates, we’ve fought against full-on voucher programs and for allowing parents to participate on committees that decide whether 3rd graders are retained.

The first half of this decade taught us that the Legislature includes people who will never trust educators, people who give us the credit we deserve, and a group in the middle that could lean either way. All three of these groups will always be in the Capitol. The width of each band varies after each election cycle.

During the 2011 and 2012 legislative sessions, public education was probably more on the defensive than at any point in the previous 20 years. Since then, more education-friendly legislators have been elected. I try not to give a legislator too much credit for one “good vote.” Or two or three. The opposite is also true. Some of the lawmakers I consider to be strong public school advocates make me want to bang my head against a desk sometimes.

Over the next few weeks, as we’re all closely watching what happens at the Capitol, I’ll dust off this blog and add a few thoughts, highlight some relevant data points, and generally try to make sense of the evolving political landscape. As always, when I’m writing here, I speak for myself. I may use an experience from my district to illustrate a point, but any opinion expressed on this blog is mine, period.

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