OWASSO, OKLAHOMA — Since the second grade, Stephani Barger has known she wanted to be a teacher in Oklahoma. Barger said that in her senior year of high school, she got a calling from God who inspired her to become a special education teacher. For the past 19 years, she first worked as a special education paraprofessional, then later as a teacher. Finally three years ago, she got her “dream” position as a special education teacher for the “moderate to severe program” at Owasso High School, a suburb north of Tulsa known for its baseball team and tall water tower featuring a giant ram decal.
Barger’s passion to help her students has kept her working hard to improve their life skills. She organizes proms and rummage sales to teach independence to her students. She calls local businesses in Owasso to employ her students for weeks to teach them financial skills. Every month, she spends anywhere between $175 and $200 of her own money for supplies and material to help her students learn social skills. Yet despite her hard work, Barger’s paycheck has not seen any kind of meaningful increase since at least 2008.
She wants to change that. This week, Barger was among the estimated 30,000 people at the state Capitol in Oklahoma City demanding additional education funding from the legislature.
“I have always wanted to be a teacher,” Barger told ThinkProgress on Tuesday night. Donning a red sticker bearing the Oklahoma Education Association acronym, she had just driven 110 miles back for the second day in a row from the Capitol building to Owasso, which her family has called home for four generations.
“We’re almost a hated profession in this state.”
“I didn’t go into [teaching] for money or anything like that, but I just didn’t think that our legislature would hate us this much,” Barger said. She had waited three hours in line earlier in the day along with thousands of other rallygoers to get into the State Capitol Building while being “whipped around” by gusty 20 to 30 mph winds. “I just feel like in the 19 years I’ve been teaching, that the Oklahoma government has systematically just cut and cut and cut and given us no respect. We’re almost a hated profession in this state.”
Barger has a class size of 15 high school students this year, but with the moderate to severe issues her kids have, she said her class load should be no more than 10 or 12 students. She teaches students with “intellectual disabilities, Down syndrome, autism, and multiple disabilities.” Yet whatever funding she gets for her curriculum comes not from the school district but from an education foundation. And her para, who she says she couldn’t do her job without, brings home less than $1,000 a month.
Gov. Mary Fallin (R) on Tuesday signed a $2.9 billion education funding package to raise the wages of school support staff and state employees. The package includes “$353.5 million for teacher pay; $52 million for support personnel pay: $33 million for textbooks: $17 million for the state aid formula; and $24.7 million for flex health care benefits,” according to local ABC affiliate KTUL. Fallin recently signed another piece of legislation for an additional $50 million for school funding to grant a modest $6,100 annual pay increase for teachers — an increase for the first time in ten years — but teachers have argued that they need $200 million more.
“Teachers want more,” Fallin told CBS News. “But it’s kind of like a teenager wanting a better car.”
Teachers in similar positions to Barger may not necessarily agree with the implication that they are petulant teenagers asking for a “better car,” or in this case better pay for the sake of asking for more money. For many teachers, it’s a matter of wanting Oklahoma to prosper. Kathy Rutherford, an Advanced American History teacher at the 8th Grade Center and Mock Trial coach at Owasso High School, grew up in the city and became a teacher in 1990 when she said teachers were treated with respect by the state government.
“It’s time to change the standard,” Rutherford said on Tuesday. “Teachers need the respect and it’s the groundwork for a better economy, a better state… If we don’t raise the standard for education, then everything else falls to the wayside. Companies don’t want to come to the state, I’ve talked to people who won’t bring their kids to Oklahoma because they don’t want to go to the public schools.”
Rutherford and her Tulsa-area firefighter husband raised their three daughters in Oklahoma and while she’s thankful that her children are now succeeding in college and grad school, she’s not so sure the same quality of secondary education may exist for future generations.
“If I were to have a do-over in this point in time — I watched things deteriorate in the state — we would put efforts into moving,” Rutherford admitted.
Dana McConnell, a special education teacher at the Northeast Elementary School in Owasso, nodded and agreed as Rutherford spoke across the table during the sit-down interview with ThinkProgress. Neither woman knew each other, but they were energized and ready to talk about why they were striking. Tobra Avery, a local parent, had organized the meeting with the teachers within an hour. All three teachers separately agreed to meet with ThinkProgress because they firmly believed in shining a light on the problems that even “good” school districts like Owasso are facing under major education cuts over the years.
McConnell got into teaching 30 years ago in Texas at a time when she said it was a respected profession by students and parents. She took some time off to raise children, but she has seen an overall decline in the respect from parents and an increase in classroom size.
“When I find out I have to buy that, that’s a whole other ball of wax that there isn’t funding for.”
McConnell sees a necessary need for funding because she currently shares a para — her self-described “right arm” without whom “I could not do this job” — with the special education teacher across the hall from her, but that only alleviates the issues so much. McConnell has 14 students on her caseload, which is a lot considering the type of focus and work she needs, and her neighboring special education teacher has a caseload of 30 kids, or 14 students at any given time.
Like many other assistants, McConnell’s para has duties that range from diaper changes for students in special education classes, tube feedings, and lifting students physically out of wheelchairs into standing devices.
“My school has four special ed classes,” McConnell said. “We could use more support personnel and that funding is not available. There’s all kinds of technology — we can rent things or borrow things — but when I find out I have to buy that, that’s a whole other ball of wax that there isn’t funding for.”
The necessities are real for Rutherford, too. Like many teachers, she lacks funding for educational material and progressive technology which makes teaching difficult.
Both women agreed that while a $6,000 raise would be helpful on the face of it, there were still issues with the underlying bill with other educational budget items that remain underfunded. It was their understanding that the bill would provide state funding to increase pay the first year, but that it would then fall on the school districts to pay teachers in subsequent years.
“They would have to lay off some teachers in order to keep the raises for the other teachers who are there,” McConnell said. “That is so not what we want.”
Neither Rutherford nor McConnell have dire financial circumstances. But like Barger, their salaries alone are not enough to get by. All three teachers rely on their spouse’s income and several jobs on the side to support their families. McConnell has a teacher friend who “used money out of her child’s piggy bank” to take a bus for $5 to support the Oklahoma City walkout because she couldn’t afford the trip. Rutherford said her children take out college loans and her husband’s salary makes life “liveable.”
“If it wasn’t for [my husband’s] salary as a Tulsa fireman, I would have gone out of the state a long, long time ago,” Rutherford said. “When he retires in a year, if things really don’t change, we’re leaving and going out of state.”
What’s perhaps must discouraging to all three teachers is how “undervalued” they feel as teachers.
Barger worked for more than a decade until her pay caught up to her husband’s pay at a neighboring school district. Her husband worked for 10 years as a maintenance person and groundskeeper and it took her an additional 10 years for her to “ever touch his salary when I first started teaching.”
“Nobody thinks they’re going to get into profession where their salary is going to go down over ten years or 20 years,” Rutherford said. “[No one thinks] their salaries will go down or stay the same. Many of us have master’s degrees and above.”
“I started teaching 30 years ago,” McConnell said. “I’ve got a post-master’s degree. I’m making less now than I was 20 years ago in Texas.”
McConnell and Rutherford see a major lesson from this walkout. Both women have growing daughters at home, for whom they are actively try to mold into strong role models for the future. By walking out of their classrooms, they have sent an unwavering message to the state government that they deserve to be treated with dignity.
Rutherford has attended other marches in recent history, but this labor walkout was McConnell’s first.
“This is my first work-related walkout I’ve ever participated in,” McConnell explained. “I have two daughters. I want to set that example for them. This has been such a wonderful lesson for them to talk about voting, to teach them to read, to learn before you go to the polls. I think they’re becoming more aware. I’m becoming more gutsy and speaking my mind about things.”
The walkout has spurred McConnel to write to her local and state representatives, a lesson in democracy that she wants her children to viscerally understand as a way to effectuate change.
“I have many students doing this and there is no better lesson here and that’s what democracy is supposed to be and it’s important to me,” Rutherford said, cracking a small joke as history teachers do by quipping that this could be the “protest heard around the world.”
The significance of the walkout was not lost on Avery either. As a parent of four Owasso students between the eighth grade and senior year of high school, Avery’s children are out of school at the moment because of the walkout. But she knows the foundation good teachers have laid for her children. As a result, she has been a vocal supporter and even generated a Facebook frame for profile pictures that people can download to show their support.
Barger mentors Avery’s daughter Heidi who has long wanted to be a special education teacher. But Avery is worried her junior high school daughter may not be able to help children in Oklahoma because other teachers have provided horror stories that have not been entirely encouraging for a new generation of would-be teachers.
“There are kids here who need special education,” Avery told ThinkProgress. ” Why would you come here when the quality is going down? [Teachers] can go elsewhere to make survivable money. It’s not about the greed. It’s about, ‘will they be able to survive?’ It’s about, ‘will my daughter in five years be able to survive?’ I don’t know at this point.”
Avery explained that the quality of public education was intrinsically tied into everything else. Using herself as an example, she and her husband moved here from Illinois 13 years ago for a job offer and settled in Owasso because of the good school system. But she said that could change for future Owassoans.
“Every bit of it comes back…. the first question that people ask is where are the good schools,” Avery said. “When people stop moving here and businesses move out of here and property values go down, property taxes go down. Then it becomes an unbelievably vicious cycle. It’s the city and county — and it’s tied into teacher pay.”
“This is probably the biggest bipartisan support I have seen for almost 13 years of living in Oklahoma.”
“This [walkout] is important for the greater good,” Avery said. “It’s not just about a lower pay scale. It’s about the fact that nothing changed for so long.”
“I put this on my sign: It’s a Confucius quote. ‘If your plan is for one year, plant rice. If your plan is for ten years, plant trees. If your plan is for one hundred years, you educate children,'” Rutherford chimed in. “Does Oklahoma want to be a state where we raise smart children and set the foundation for everything else? [Lawmakers] can make that choice.”
“What’s very interesting to me is that this is probably the biggest bipartisan support I have seen for almost 13 years of living in Oklahoma,” Avery said. “I’ve never seen anything that’s brought Republicans and Democrats together. As divided as we are on a national level, I think there’s something in this activism and coming together and accomplishing things.”
“We’re the stepping stone for every occupation,” Barger said. “What I really want to do is get a bus and load up all my students and say, ‘Tell them no. Tell them they’re not worth it.’ Because I guarantee you if [lawmakers] spent five minutes with my students, they’ll be like, ‘Okay I will fund you.'”