The only things I really know how to do as a leader are listen and tell the truth.
It has been such a pleasure to listen to our teachers voice their passion for our students and the vital institution of public schools over the last weeks. Your calls for respecting our profession through competitive pay and for fair school funding made a difference. The actions that the Governor signed would not have happened were it not for your courage and conviction. The package of bills that is now law in our state is more than I thought was possible just a short time ago.
YOU made it possible. You are the dreamers who believe in six impossible things before breakfast. You believe in our students. You believe in our communities. You believe in our district. You believe in our city. You believe in the state of Oklahoma. You believe in the power of US. Together, we have been stronger - and our strength will continue to grow.
My incredible colleague Deborah Gist, who walked 110 miles from our sister district, Tulsa Public Schools, with an intrepid group of educators, said what was on my heart at the Capitol on Tuesday: “This isn’t a rally. It isn’t a protest. Our teachers have created a movement.”
It is a movement that could chart a very different course for Oklahoma from being among the last states in investment in education and among the top states in incarcerating our citizens to flipping that script.
Here is the part where I have to tell you the truth...which can be uncomfortable sometimes. I know you are angry, and many have expressed a wish to continue out of our shared passion, but any action against the district to disrupt our instructional program is harming our students who have been out of school for four of the last five weeks. Our partners have been amazing in bearing the brunt of the hardship of our cancelled classes for the last two weeks, and they aren’t complaining. However, behind the scenes, I am hearing about resources stretched very thin and about to break. I have heard stories about our partners having more kids than they can handle, and parents who are having to make hard choices to leave students with disabilities unattended to avoid losing their jobs.
The way for us to build the movement at this point is from our classrooms, schools, and offices. Some of the reason for this is practical -- if we do not meet federal testing requirements, we could lose our federal funding, roughly 12% of our budget. The week extension we received from the state is all the wiggle room they have in their timing. It hurts my heart to think that my third grader might have to walk in cold to take a test that we adults have stressed him out about for the past year - and possibly have to do it with a stranger if we had to find a Plan B to do assessments with a group of volunteer staff members.
As well, the legislative pathways to significant additional revenue are closed at this point. Anything that might be possible, if it were earmarked for education, would look like maybe 0.2% of our general fund budget. The cost of remaining closed for our students, families, and our budget simply does not outweigh the unlikely benefit. I want to assure you that our board is committed to supporting our leadership in this movement, including continuing to pursue a lawsuit against the state due to our leaders’ failure to adequately fund our schools. We have asked OKC-AFT to provide us with a plan to send a delegation of teachers to the Capitol to represent us each day, and we hope that will begin on Monday.
The next step for us is to keep all this energy going in our daily work. Every time we show up with excellence, passion, and a caring heart, we put a deposit into the account of our movement for educational equity for our children. Every time a light bulb goes off for a student or a child succeeds in resolving a conflict with words instead of violence, we prove that the dollars invested in our schools are dollars well spent. We prove that it can be done, and our schools are a great bet for further investment.
The actions of our legislature so far aren’t enough to close the gap with where we would be without the last decade of painful cuts, but as Dr. Martin Luther King once said, “We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.” The legislative process in a single session is not going to fix the accumulation of decades of disrespect and deprofessionalization of our work that makes us so rightfully angry. But there is something that might. A record number of candidates have filed to run for state offices, and we have to keep our eye on the long game of changing the fact that only 27% of teachers vote in Oklahoma and of changing the political narrative that taxes are a burden when the reality is that taxes are the dues we pay to have high quality public services.
“To everything there is a season and a time for every purpose under heaven. (Ecc. 3:1)” The time for collective action at the Capitol with our peers across the state has come to a close. The time for collective action in our schools and communities -- and at the ballot box -- is now. Now is the time to turn toward our students, turn toward our mission, turn toward our future.
Most of all, do not despair. Don’t you dare feel defeated. You have proven that you are fearless. You have taught your students to stand up for what is right and for what you believe in. You have shown them how to use their voices. They are going to look you in the eye on Monday and see a warrior who fights for them, no matter what.
Get some rest this weekend to stand strong and keep fighting on Monday. Our kids need our “A” game now more than ever. As I have said before, my job is to support teachers every day, and I’ve got your back.
Love and courage,