Our middle child, Erin, started kindergarten at a large public school in a suburb of Tulsa. On her first day at Jenks East Elementary, I packed her Disney character lunchbox, slipped her plastic pink and purple backpack through her two little outstretched arms, and told her that this was the best day of her life so far. I was only repeating what she had been telling everyone for months, that her first day of kindergarten – real school as she called it – was going to be the “best day of my life.”
She started school in 1996, when many schools in Oklahoma still had half-day kindergarten. At pick-up time, she trotted down the hallway with the other morning kindergartners, carrying her bright backpack, and her little silver hair clip barely hanging on a few wisps of bangs. She stopped when she saw me and stomped one little foot in frustration.
“Is that it?” she asked.
While many children were running to their parents after the three-hour separation, my daughter was feeling cheated out of the best day of her life.
Thankfully, she adjusted to the short days. For the next thirteen years, the daughter who had played school with stuffed animals and cried when her older brother trudged off to kindergarten the year before her, thrived in the public schools she attended. We handed over each of our three children to that public school system, never for once believing that there was a better alternative. Kyle and I are both products of public school. It was in those buildings that, as children, we learned to live in community. We were in classrooms, lunchrooms and on the playground with students from different backgrounds, ethnicities, religions, income levels and family structures. Our schools were a reflection of the larger communities we lived in, never completely homogeneous, but bonded together through shared social structures. Our parents, like us, believed in the kind of democracy that puts value on quality education for all children, not just the elite who have the means to afford it. We pay our taxes so that, in theory, everyone can enjoy a quality of life that includes health services, ease of transportation, city parks, and most importantly, education for our children, your children, and their children.
It’s flawed, however. As often happens, power and politics entered the room, and over the years, money that should have been appropriated for the good of our children is redirected to benefit big business and tax cuts for those in upper-income levels. Not surprisingly, what was designed to jump-start the economy, has served only to constrain the state’s revenues.
This siphoning of money away from the services that are necessary to build healthy communities results in a very undemocratic distribution of funds, so that children who rely on public education are crammed into overcrowded classrooms with underpaid teachers and decades-old textbooks.
Many people weren’t paying attention over the past ten years. And our underpaid teachers (heroes) walked out of classrooms and into our state capitol to demand that our legislators fix the crisis and fund education at a dignified level. On the first day of the walkout, our youngest daughter took her handmade sign to Oklahoma City and joined her teachers, administrators, and other parents to demonstrate the frustration over these realities: Oklahoma now spends $1 billion less on K-12 education than it did a decade ago; one in five school districts has opted for a four-day school week; the base minimum salary for educators hasn’t been raised in nearly a decade; and emergency credentials are being awarded at a record pace to help fill teacher vacancies. Funding for Arts programs have been slashed and many of those programs are gone. Some schools are consolidating their sports programs with other schools to save money. Even the best public schools in our state rely on teachers to supplement classroom supplies by using their personal funds.
Six years ago, I began traveling to Ghana, and during my first two years there I observed classrooms where children were sitting three at a desk and without textbooks for any subject, while teachers took 10 minutes at the start of each class to write the entire lesson on the board with stubs of chalk. A mandated part of the curriculum was Information Technology, but most children had never seen a computer and teachers were forced to teach that course using the chalkboard. They started the unit by drawing pictures of computer screens, floppy disks(!) and a mouse. It was no wonder they were constantly begging for chalk.
When I told them the schools in our state were also underfunded, they were incredulous.
“How could that be?” one of the teachers asked. It was too complicated to explain, so I just told her we were having a difficult time prioritizing.
“Children are too important. They must come first,” she replied. The irony of her statement wasn’t lost on me, but I think those words sum it up whether you live in Ghana or Oklahoma. Educated kids grow up to be educated adults who help make our communities, cities, states, and country a better place to live. But it costs money. It requires prioritizing.
Each day that for the past two weeks, the images of our dedicated teachers rallying, demonstrating, speaking out and seeking out conversations with legislators remind me that our public schools are worth fighting for. Since we talk so much about constitutional rights, this is a good place to insert Article 13 of Oklahoma’s Constitution, which says,
The Legislature shall establish and maintain a system of free public schools wherein all the children of the State may be educated.
My teacher friends in our district are going back to the classroom on Monday and students will join them on Tuesday. There is a sad, collective sigh of despair in that statement. We all feel a sense of defeat at the reality of what really did get funded. It’s not enough. Teachers had initially demanded the repeal of a capital-gains tax exemption, which applies to wealthy individuals. Instead, many of the new taxes will be paid by middle-income to low-income Oklahomans. The Legislature didn’t do the right thing.
But here’s the rest of the story: On the first day of filing for candidacy in statewide elections, 458 people -most of the teachers and other pro-education individuals filed and will be running against incumbents in November. Those numbers already surpass the total House and Senate candidates in both 2014 and 2016. Our daughter’s history teacher, Mr. Waldron, and our neighbor, Rusty, are among those who filed. Between now and November, I’m going to campaign and then take my passion to the ballot box, because that’s how democracy works best – or at least it should. I still believe in it. I still believe in public school education for all. And I still believe that if we do the right thing, we can give all children the opportunity to walk into school with the excitement of a six-year-old who says it will be “the best day ever.”