proF Perspective: Dispatches from the Oklahoma Teachers’ Walkout

The Oklahoma teachers’ walkout, which officially lasted from April 2nd until April 13th, 2018, was the first such action by teachers in the state since 1990. Inspired in part by the West Virginia walkout, it was staged in response to the dwindling budgets and stagnant teacher salaries that have caused Oklahoma to fall to 47th nationwide in education quality. Though many felt the end of the walkout was premature, it demonstrated the power of protest and solidarity to enact change, prompting lawmakers to pass pay raises for teachers and staff funded by tax increases (most notably an increase on oil and gas production) as well as a minor increase in school funding. While the walkout fell short of its goals, it succeeded not just in these gains but by galvanizing a movement: more teachers than ever are running for office, and others are continuing the fight in various strategic ways.

As an Oklahoma-based publication, we at proFmagazine knew many – teachers and supporters – who made their way to the State Capitol day after day to fight for our schools. It also hasn’t escaped our notice that those striking for education across the country are primarily women, and we wanted to turn the spotlight on a few of these everyday heroines. We spoke with two women actively participating in the walkout, one a high school teacher and the other an attorney from Oklahoma’s Girl Attorney coalition. Here they offer some valuable firsthand perspective on the goals of the walkout, the experience of occupying the Capitol and the future of a movement that is far from over.

Stephania Abell

Choir Teacher at Norman High School (Grades 9-12)

proF: Why did you personally feel the need to join the walkout?

I’m participating for many reasons. I cannot sit idly by while others work so hard to fight for what is a dismal outlook for education. I have been teaching for 18 years, and the last 10-12 I’ve seen a steady decline not only in funding but in morale. Teachers leave the state or the profession because it's too hard a job to do when it seems no one supports your efforts. Sure, other teachers understand and support each other, but it takes more than that to keep going day after day. The walkout was inevitable, in my opinion, because empty promises were made year after year. As much as I dislike that it had to happen, I am glad that we are waking up a generation of people to what happens at the Capitol and how to make a difference.

proF: At this point in time, what are teachers still asking for?

Teachers are asking for more funding for students. We got a pay raise and a small amount of funding with HB 1010, and that acknowledgment was affirming and also very needed. But it neglects the student need. More funding provides so many things that help student learning – specifically more teachers, updated and more textbooks, smaller class sizes, more counselors (meaning a smaller load for each counselor – ours at NHS have about 400-500 kids each) and more special ed teachers. We gave them many options of how to fund it, asked what they would [support] and asked for any additional ways they would be comfortable with coming up with enough funding to make an impact. Per pupil spending includes so many things – teacher pay, textbooks, buses, staff pay – so many things. And when it's nearly $1,000 lower than surrounding states, that's not okay. School funding has been cut every year for a decade while enrollment has gone up. That simply makes no sense.

proF: Can you tell us a little about your experience at the Capitol?

Sitting in the gallery during a House session is interesting (well, most of the time). Watching the legislative process in person gives some perspective on how it works and how difficult it is to get some things done with such a heavily weighted Republican to Democrat ratio. Things just stop in their tracks. It's aggravating to me to have to watch that. After a couple of days, I decided that wasn't my best use of time.

The evening before any day at the Capitol usually warranted many group messages between NHS teachers to plan for the next day. Then we would decide who would go where and how to make the most impact. Some days I couldn't get in because it was at capacity, so I would visit with other teachers outside the building and see what teachers in other districts are doing. On days when I got in, I did whatever my colleagues and I came up with the night before. I remember seeing one of my colleagues sitting in the hallway (day three or four, I think) making marks in a legislator “guidebook,” and I asked what he was doing. We made a list of who voted “yes” on 1010 and “no” on 1086 that day and then attacked separate hallways to ask for their help in getting 1086 passed. I was able to find a few of them and left notes for the rest.

My colleagues are the best – we all have strengths and tried to play to those. I'm one who carries out orders (must be my military background), so I have a list of things in hand to do and I try to do them. Others were great at making those lists, or masters at the face-to-face visit with whomever they could find, or great at taking notes or fantastic researchers. We have really savvy people at Norman High and I am proud to know them.

proF: This seems to be a movement dominated by women. Do you think that's true? If so, do you think that has impacted anything, i.e. caused politicians to dismiss it more easily?

Yes and yes. Teaching has always been a predominantly female profession, coming from the days of the one room schoolhouse when you had to be unmarried and wear a skirt to work every day to be a teacher. I think that makes it easy not only for politicians to dismiss it, but the general public. In Norman we are very strongly supported by our community and always have been. That isn't the case in many places. It's viewed by many to be the “second job” of the family for a married couple and not as the profession that it is. We are college-educated professionals and are making all the other professions possible! It isn't surprising that this movement is dominated by women, because the profession is that way as well. I wouldn't want to diminish the part that any of my male colleagues played in all of this, though. Very proud of ALL of my squad!

proF: What happens now? Are you committed to taking further action?

As the school year winds down, this is just the beginning of a movement. We are going to have a group at the Capitol every day until this session is over, making our voices heard so they can't just forget what has happened so far. I will be helping some friends campaign this summer and next fall. This is the start of Oklahoma being back on top, I believe. Can't wait to see what happens!

Lindsay LaFevers Archer

Oklahoma Attorney and Member of Girl Attorney, LLC

proF: You’re a member of Girl Attorney, correct? Tell us about the group’s involvement in the movement.

Yes, I am an attorney and a part of Girl Attorney [a group for women attorneys to support, advance, promote and encourage each other]. The Women in Black are a subgroup of Girl Attorneys who signed a statement regarding the state of public education in Oklahoma, some of whom also pledged to march to the Capitol on April 9, 2018 to stand with the teachers and aid them in negotiations with state legislators.

proF: What prompted you to join the walkout, personally and professionally?

One of the things that prompted me to be an attorney was the notion that I would be fighting injustice. The dire situation of public education, which includes the children seeking to learn and the teachers striving to teach them, is an appalling injustice. In addition to being an attorney, I am also the mother of two children, one of whom is autistic and mostly nonverbal. My son is five and will be attending public school soon. He cannot speak for himself, so I must speak for him. Everyone deserves a voice, and the walkout was the opportunity for the voices of so many – including my son – to be heard.

proF: What was your experience at the Capitol like?

My experience at the Capitol was awe-inspiring. I was part of the ground force at the Girl Attorney tent while other GAs, accompanied by teachers, went inside to meet with legislators. While at the Capitol I met many teachers who told me their stories: stories about schools not being able to provide basic supplies, like scotch tape, to students; stories of crumbling books, buildings and bank accounts. Even when I broke out of line during the march to hug a teacher quietly crying in the crowd, the amount of strength and resolve I saw in those brave warriors was inspiring. I met teachers who were filing to run for office to make change in their communities; I met Special Education teachers who are fighting to meet their students’ needs in the face of little support; and not once did I hear a teacher advocating for themselves. Never did I hear talk of their own salaries. Every teacher was fighting for OUR kids.

proF: What do you hope happens now? Are you committed to taking further action?

What I hope happens now is that the momentum gained by this movement steadily continues until our public education system gets the funds it needs not only to meet 2008 levels, but to flourish. The Girl Attorneys have created a new group called “See You Monday” – named after the Monday, April 9th Women in Black march – which aims to support teachers, parents and groups in the fight for substantive change. Some of the See You Monday committees include the Litigation Committee, Clean House Committee, District Reduction Committee, Legislative Accountability Committee and School Partnering Committee.

Better still, numerous GAs have filed for office for positions ranging from State Representative to District Judge to Attorney General to other posts. We must never forget what our teachers did for us, for our children. This movement is not over. Not by a long shot.