If you have been watching the news this week, it is likely you have heard the sound bytes of Oklahoma teachers protesting for higher salaries and increased funding. Schools statewide have been shut down. An AP English teacher prepping students for the upcoming exam, held class in front of the statehouse.
Oklahoma schools are ranked 48th in the nation. Teachers there have been working with outdated textbooks and in poorly maintained facilities. Like their colleagues across the country, they purchase school supplies using their own money. Oklahoma teacher salaries have declined since 2000 even as the cost of living has continued to rise. Oklahoma spends almost 4% less on education than the national state average.
47 states are doing a better job schooling their youth. That’s good, right? Yesterday’s textbooks were fine for the previous generation. Most teachers willingly admit that they never entered their profession expecting to make a million. Besides, those teachers, you know, they have it pretty easy, don’t they? Working 8-3, 184 days a year? And they knew what they were signing on for when they took seats in their first ed course.
Make no mistake. This isn’t just a labor dispute. This is a fight for the future of public education in America.
A Turning Point
Public education in America is at a crossroads. We have reached that tipping point when we either put up or shut up. Amid abundant lip service of the importance of good schools and teacher competency, funding lags.
Federal policy is currently determined by an education department led by Betsy DeVos, a self-serving bureaucrat with zero public school experience. Her inability to answer simple questions about public education earns her an ineffective rating on the Danielson scale. Yet, she holds some of the purse strings for an institution she knows so little about. Her appointment and confirmation speak volumes about what we really think about the importance of education.
And while we continue the incessant chatter about school as central to future success, respect for educators declines. You wouldn’t try to remove your own appendix. A lawyer who represents herself has a fool for a client. Yet teachers enter classrooms daily in defensive postures. Everyone, it seems, think she could do this job and do it better than the pros.
If we want the best for our kids–and most of us agree that we do–we have to be willing to pay for the best and the brightest. We want innovators in our classrooms, challenging our kids to think, to act. As the cost of college and required graduate school degrees continue to rise, kids with other options will opt for more lucrative professions. Can you blame them? If teaching means holding down two, sometimes three jobs to pay the rent, top candidates will take their talents elsewhere.
We have to be willing to buy the basic supplies, provide access to advanced technology and find ways to keep American kids competitive with their peers across the globe.
People who know about these things predict teacher strikes will spread. Clearly we are about to see changes. Where these changes will lead us is still unclear. What isn’t in question, however, is the importance of education. An educated populace is central to a functioning democracy and for prosperity.