OKLAHOMA CITY, Okla. — Nearly a month since West Virginia teachers and service personnel ended a nine day work stoppage, educators throughout the country are following their example.
Morgantown native and WVU graduate Sharon Huffman Reese is now a teacher in Oklahoma, and she, too, is on the picket lines after walking out with her colleagues.
At least 180 of Oklahoma’s 500-plus school districts closed Monday as part of the teacher strike, Reese said.
“Many have cancelled for the week, and many have cancelled indefinitely so that teachers can be here,” she said. “We have huge community support right now because everybody sees that we need to spend money on our education system.”
West Virginia Education Association President Dale Lee is one of thousands rallying in Oklahoma City to show his support in the midst of Oklahoma’s own teacher strike.
“They’re struggling with the same things that we had in West Virginia,” Lee said. “The lack of proper funding for teachers and for students in Oklahoma is the same as in West Virginia, and this is my way of saying ‘thank you’ for all the support that you sent to us during our time and just be whatever help I can be to them.”
Great to catch up with WVEA President Dale Lee! Thanks for showing us it CAN be done! pic.twitter.com/aggkki5cDw
— Sharon Reese (@MtneerChick) April 2, 2018
Reese described the Capitol as “a sea of humanity,” as she stood in line to speak with the state’s legislators on several issues the teachers hope to change, primarily restoration of education funding.
“They have cut education funding since 2008 by about $200 million, and we are educating 40,000 additional students,” she said.
Similar to West Virginia, Oklahoma’s teacher pay — 50th in the nation — is much lower than that of the surrounding states to which Reese said as many as 383 teachers flee to each month.
However, Reese said, it’s not just about the pay — it’s about being able to provide a quality education to their students.
“We have classrooms that have only one set of books for all of the students throughout the day, which could be up to 170 to 180 students in a classroom a day,” Reese said. “They cannot take home a textbook, we have textbooks that are being held together by duct tape, and it’s just not acceptable.
“In Oklahoma, we spend twice as much to incarcerate a criminal as we do to educate our children, and that is just not acceptable,” she said.
Lee said the fight is “all about the classrooms,” working to assure that every student has the proper funding and a certified teacher for their education.
“This is a national issue. It’s about putting respect back in education. It’s about making public education the best that it can be,” he said. “What if we make an investment in education in this country? What if we make an investment in our kids? That’s what it’s for.”
Of course, the teachers realize that their requests must be realistic with what the state can afford, but Reese said they have “done their homework” to find reasonable solutions.
Two of those include restoring capital gain tax cuts and gross production taxes, as Oklahoma’s economy — like West Virginia’s — is heavily dependent upon the energy industry.
“The oil and gas people are not going to stop drilling for that because our increase goes up and our GPT. We have the oil, we have the natural gas. They will keep drilling, and they can pay their fair share,” Reese said. “We also have wind industry that has gotten a lot of tax breaks in the past. They can restore that, and they can add that to the education funding.”
Reese and other Oklahoma educators closely followed the nine-day work stoppage in West Virginia, and she said it had a huge affect on their own action.
“When we saw that the West Virginia teachers impacted their legislature, we knew that we could have an impact here,” she said. “So today is just day one. This is going to continue on, and there are some schools that have called off school until education funding is restored.”
Lee said he’s spoken with many Oklahoma educators during his trip, many who thank him for putting a focus on education and, more importantly, for giving them hope.
“And that’s really what I’m proud of about what we did in West Virginia. We gave an entire nation the belief that education should be funded properly,” he said. “This has to be an all-in situation. To be successful, you have to stand united, and when you’re united great things can be accomplished.”