Oklahoma rural, urban educators disagree on school needs

BY ASSOCIATED PRESS
05/06/2018 12:00 PM
OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) – Even as they presented unified calls for increased funding, rural and urban educators had starkly different ideas of how to accomplish it, lawmakers said.

Teachers were allied in their calls for increased pay, additional classroom spending and reduced class sizes. Still, some lawmakers said they couldn’t help but notice some stark disagreement and mixed messages about how to solve those issues.

And as the walkout continued with little apparent legislative action, lawmakers said the divide appeared to be heightened by educators’ geographical and socioeconomic differences.

“The last two weeks, we almost had a civil war between the urban and the rural teachers,” said state Sen. Ron Sharp, R-Shawnee, a retired teacher and vice chair of his chamber’s education committee. “Your rural teachers, your rural superintendents began to realize this is turning into a battle of survival, and I don’t think they anticipated this.”

Sharp said the educators from the much larger urban districts — like Tulsa and Oklahoma City — told him new education revenue should come through consolidation of rural school districts. He said teachers proposed reducing the number of districts from more than 500 to 70 or 77.

Rural educators, meanwhile, were fighting to preserve their much smaller schools, which typically only have a few hundred students and serve agricultural communities, but are the soul of their communities, he said.

“You could see in the responses of the (Oklahoma Education Association) that they recognized that there was about to be a major problem between the urban and the rural teachers,” Sharp said. “Their coalition was breaking up.”

Many of her group’s rural members didn’t walk out, said Ginger Tinney, executive director of the Professional Oklahoma Educators association, a nonprofit professional organization that has nearly 12,000 members.

“Part of it is just geographical,” she said. “We knew we’d have members on every side of the issue.”

Many of her rural members live in communities where they’re are the highest-paid professionals. They work with agricultural families whose livelihoods are dependent on a crop and Mother Nature, she said.

“I’m not sure how well-received it would be if we walked out,” Tinney said members told her.

But in urban areas, many citizens make more than teachers, Tinney said.

“Teachers are a fraternity, and they all support each other,” said state Rep. Mike Sanders, R-Kingfisher. “But sometimes I wonder whether or not those big organizations really speak for my smaller schools.”

Sanders said teachers in about half of the 14 districts he represents won’t even get a raise. Those districts don’t receive per pupil funding from the state and therefore won’t benefit from the latest legislative action, CNHI reported.

Lawmakers recently allocated almost $2.9 billion for K-12 schools — a nearly 20 percent increase over current funding levels. They approved permanently increasing classroom teachers’ salaries an average of $6,100, pay increases for school support staff and allocating $50 million more in classroom spending.

The Legislature passed nearly $500 million in new taxes to pay for it.

Although many teachers won’t see a raise, they opted to stay in school for the walkout’s duration and talked with him via telephone, Sanders said.

Other districts came to the Capitol for the first walkout day and then returned to class, Sanders said.

Sanders said he found rural educators more appreciative of what the Legislature had done. His educators came in, thanked him and accepted that the action was a first step.

Urban educators, though, were less willing to accept those promises.

“I think they wanted another $150 or $200 million more to the formula, but they could never present a plan,” he said. “I think they were just throwing stuff up on the wall to see if something could happen.”

Senate President Pro Tem Designate Greg Treat, R-Oklahoma City, who met with teachers from across the state, said demands “ran the gamut” in every district, depending on the individual teacher.

“There started being a difference between rural and urban teachers on the level of intensity,” he said. “The Tulsa-area and Oklahoma City-area had more fervor and more intensity than some of the more rural districts by the end.”

State Rep. Kevin Wallace, R-Wellston, represents a House district that has about 5,200 K-12 students.

He said fewer teachers from rural Oklahoma walked out for the nine-day duration.

“Each school’s a little bit different about what their main concerns or demands or needs are for each district, which ties into local control,” Wallace said. “As we move forward on this process, it’s opened up the dialogue and conversation to take a closer look at local spending, local control.”

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