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"It just hurts me": Low pay, large classes are the plight of teachers in Oklahoma



For the superintendent of the public schools of this city are the signs that their teachers struggle to find everywhere.

In a local restaurant, it was a teacher Deborah Gist recently served. In the shop of the Reasor there is sometimes a teacher behind the register. And then there was the Uber, which the school headmaster received for an early morning flight – a teacher was driving and trying to make some money before he went to the classroom. There was a pile of student journals in the passenger seat.

"It's just so wrong that it only hurts me," said Gist, who has been Superintendent since 201

5.

Oklahoma teachers are among the lowest paid in the nation. and despite the fact that the governor and legislators are approving an increase of $ 6,100 this week, the educators agree to leave on Monday if their full claims – including the restoration of budget cuts – are not met. For a decade, little has been done to address the plight of state teachers. It's a situation that has forced many to take a second job, rely on food pantries and donate their plasma to pay the bills.

The revolt in Oklahoma comes amidst a wave of teacher protests that have no parallel in the United States. In West Virginia, educators remained tense for nine days before winning a salary increase. In Arizona, teachers are on strike unless the state gives them a 20 percent salary increase. In Kentucky, on Friday, educators closed at least 20 school systems when they gathered in the capital to protest against pension reforms. "Let's not go to West Virginia," read a demonstrator's sign.

Earlier this year, educators in Oklahoma became inconsolable – and desperate – as the legislature was unable to increase their salaries. Then, about 1,000 miles east, the West Virginia teachers left the job and used a 5 percent increase after they closed the schools. Suddenly, the whispers about the possibility of a strike in Oklahoma became a goosebump roar, even as teachers scrambling to leave their students behind.

"We've talked about this forever," said Randi Cowan third-grade teacher in Tulsa, who earned $ 33,746 last year and lives in a house built by Habitat for Humanity. "But then someone else did it and … it just kindled our fire."

As in West Virginia, Oklahoma educators have reached a point where they are struggling with stagnant wages and cuts in education funding. The idea of ​​a strike began in mid-February after a proposed salary increase did not find enough support from legislators. A superintendent circulated a petition asking colleagues if they would support a teacher outage.

Then, a 25-year-old social studies teacher, inspired by what happened in West Virginia, started a Facebook group titled "Oklahoma Teacher Walkout – The Time Is Now!" It has ballooned to 70,000 members, including educators Oklahoma and West Virginia and supportive parents.

Instructors, backed by state teacher unions, demanded an increase of $ 10,000 for themselves and an increase of $ 5,000 for support personnel. They also call on the state to increase budget cuts and school spending by $ 200 million over three years. If they do not get what they want by Monday, teachers plan to leave the job in about 140 school districts – including some of the state's largest.

In 2016, Oklahoma was ranked 49th in teacher wages – even lower than West Virginia, which was 48. The Oklahoma Teacher's average compensation package, according to the National Education Association, was $ 45,276 a year, a figure that includes one includes high-priced health plan and other benefits. This is far less than educators in neighboring countries who make it difficult – impossible for many districts to find and keep qualified teachers.

Oklahoma's Teacher of the Year 2016, Shawn Sheehan, left for Texas last year and joined many other teachers looking for higher-paying jobs.

Robert Bohn, an agricultural teacher in the small town of Cement, said he could teach $ 20,000 a year in Texas. He pointed to the two-lane highway. "Texas is just an hour like this," said Bohn.

The sovereign debt crisis began at least a decade ago, when the recession plummeted and lawmakers were tempted to cut spending on education. Even after the state's economy recovered, long-lasting tax cuts and a slump in oil prices cut government revenue and education funding. In this deeply conservative state, legislators have resisted the tax hike – and this requires a three-quarters majority of the legislature.

Adjusted for inflation, the amount spent by the state per student has fallen by nearly 30 percent in the past decade (19659002). Consequences are evident throughout the state

Virginia Ayers, a sixth-grade teacher at a Tulsa Elementary school with many students from low-income families, has 36 teenagers in their class. In rural cements, principals could no longer afford to turn the light off five days a week, so they shortened the academic week to four days. It's not the only district: last year, there were 96 four-day school weeks.

In Bartlesville, Superintendent Chuck McCauley, desperate for a math teacher, hired a candidate with a sports degree and no class experience. "We're hiring people we did not even interview ten years ago," McCauley said.

Paltry's pay has visibly impacted the lives of teachers. Some live paychecks to paycheck and face eviction because they can not keep up with the bills. Fighting for survival, many have postponed savings for retirement and emergencies. A teacher, a single mother of two small children, lived with her mother and shared a bed with her children because she could not afford rent. Her own children were enrolled in the Child Health Insurance Program, which insures families on modest incomes, and she did so little that she qualified for a Habitat for Humanity home.

Ayers withdrew a high-interest-rate loan for a $ 1,300 repair. But she could not afford loan payments and groceries, and to feed herself, she started to work twice a week in a plasma center and earn $ 20 to $ 40 for each donation. It made her lethargic in the classroom.

"It got me tired most of the time," said Ayers, who also developed shingles.

She once had to turn to a church – John 3:16 Mission – to pay for a utility bill. There she saw some of her students in an extracurricular program.

"It embarrassed me because I try to inspire children to go to college to lead a better life," Ayers said. "Here I went to college for nine years and can not even support myself, what kind of role model was that?"

Jennifer Thornton, a third-grade teacher in a high-arm elementary school in Tulsa, said she supported herself and her teenage son for less than $ 2,000 a month. Two years ago she had to undergo surgery on the brain, and after the medical bills arrived, she appeared in the John 3:16 mission pantry. She spotted some of her students in the church playground and prayed that they had not recognized her.

"It was so embarrassing," said Thornton, bursting into tears. "She and her families are in the same situation … but it did not make it much easier."

Thornton opened the cabinets in her darkened shed block apartment to reveal about a dozen cans. In the fridge was little more than an empty egg carton and a few spices that were sitting there lost. The cans, she said, came from a devout disciple whose mother realized that Thornton was having trouble seeing her picking up leftovers from a Valentine's Day party. The boy brought her a bag of food – also from a pantry.

"Teaching in this state breaks my heart every day," said Thornton. "I do not know how much longer I can do without a pay raise."

In Hale High, Tulsa, on a recent day of the week, about a dozen students bowed over phones, listening to music or chatting should their biology class be. There was little to distinguish biology from the room – just a periodic poster and a stack of dusty textbooks. Two teachers had quit since the beginning of the school year. On that day, almost three weeks after the last teacher left, a local barber who served as substitute teacher took attendance, but had no work to give to students.

"My class is high, but still I want to learn a lot. I like science," said Delvon McKinney, a 17-year-old 10th-grade student who spends his time loading his phone. Last semester he was without art teacher for several weeks. The constant exodus of teachers frustrates him. "They will feel well and they are gone."

Two and a half hours southwest of Oklahoma City, in Comanche County, Bohn oversees 40 acres of land on which he raises chickens, pigs and cattle. He gets up at 5:30 and feeds his cattle and horses in the dark. His small farm, where he also grows peaches, feeds his family, including his wife, a kindergarten teacher retired for a disability, and his 14-year-old daughter. He supports her with the $ 50,000 a year he earns through an extended contract and also earns as a church pastor.

At Cement High, he teaches students to grow their own food so they can supplement their families' diets as well. He has two safes in his classroom and houses shotguns for the school's shooter team.

Bohn is a registered Republican who voted for President Trump, and he is suspicious of unions. But the problems he's facing in the classroom – rundown computers and old textbooks – are beyond politics for him.

As the sun rose over the school, a pump-jack took oil out of the earth under the classrooms, a mechanical humming filled the air. It stood between the school building and the softball field that turned Bohn into an orchard.

The machine is a ubiquitous reminder of the state's most dominant and powerful industry. Bohn stood in his shadow as the mechanical head bounced up and down, sharing his conviction that the oil companies were not paying their fair share – until this week, along with the teacher pay increase, the legislature decided to raise taxes on oil production.

"There are oil wells right on the school grounds," he said, "and yet we do not get much of that."


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