Meet the Oklahoma teachers who said enough

April 9, 2018

Strikes and protests by Oklahoma educators and students will continue into a second week. More demonstrations are expected at the Capitol building in Oklahoma City on Monday despite political leaders complaining that they've met teachers' demands by passing legislation that gives them a one-time salary increase. But teachers say this is a half-measure regarding their own demands--and it does nothing at all to restore funding for schools after years of cuts led to a 28 percent drop in per-student spending on public education.

With the schools struggle in Oklahoma and elsewhere now in the national spotlight, Hannah Utain-Evans, Elizabeth Lalasz and Sean Larson talked to teachers and students about what they did to overcome the challenges of organizing for change in Oklahoma.

FINALLY, THEIR stories are known.

Teachers and students in Oklahoma and other states have endured years of public schools being neglected and left to rot. It took this year's early spring of strikes and protests to inspire support from people around the country--and, in some cases at least, extract concessions from state legislatures.

Now, everyone who reads or watches the news knows about the revolt of the "red-state" teachers, as even the mainstream media have called it.

The strikes and protests are taking place in Republican-dominated states where unions are hamstrung by "right-to-work" laws and other undemocratic restrictions that have made it hard for the labor movement to play its traditional role as the backbone of working people's struggles.

Oklahoma became a "right-to-work" state in 2001. Today, of the state's more than 40,000 teachers, some 28 percent are represented by the Oklahoma Education Association (OEA), and 7 percent are members of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT). Over two-thirds of the state's educators don't belong to either union.

Striking teachers and students rally at the Oklahoma state Capitol
Striking teachers and students rally at the Oklahoma state Capitol

To make matters worse, Professional Oklahoma Educators, a self-defined "non-union, nonpartisan professional organization" established in 1988 to undermine labor initiatives, has added to the confusion, even masquerading as another alternative union to sign up new members at last week's Capitol rallies.

With genuine unions weakened by anti-labor laws and disconnected from the realities that teachers face every day because state law forbids unions bargaining for their members, how did teachers who wanted to say enough to low wages and deteriorating conditions in school get their message heard?

Here's how some Oklahoma teachers and students are answering this question as their strikes and protests enter a second week.

THE FIRST step was to be able to talk about the problems locally.

The tight-knit nature of many communities in Oklahoma has been a double-edged sword during the strike. People have come together quickly to offer childcare and support to teachers. But at the same time, school workers might well face principals, superintendents and legislators in church, for example.

So the stakes of taking a stand in favor of the walkouts can be high when the repercussions are social as well as professional.

Jessica and Jason Lightle, now outspoken advocates for their school district in McAlester, were some of the first teachers to begin talking about the conditions in their school--and they faced a backlash for it.

It started when Jessica saw another teacher, Laurissa Kovacs, from Puterbaugh Middle School in McAlester, post pictures of the conditions in her classroom, including an image of a broken blue plastic chair that went viral on Facebook.

Jessica decided teachers couldn't cover up the issues in their schools anymore. "There's a lot of pride, and the community has done so much to fill gaps--with money, with paint," she says. "But there's only so much you can do when there's no more money in the town."

Jessica challenged the way news outlets like CNN were misrepresenting the teachers' struggle by focusing on their salaries. She turned the spotlight to focus on classroom conditions, but her first posts were met with hostility and skepticism.

"I was called a liar by my community and was told that I wasn't really a teacher in McAlester," Jessica says. "People just had no idea what was going on."

Because Lightle and Kovacs persisted in speaking out, however, the media had to pay attention, and the two teachers they have told their message to a much wider audience. Their fellow teachers stood behind them and shared more information to back up the case.

ANOTHER IMPORTANT organizing space in many districts, where teachers can meet with administrators to air grievances or debate out next steps, even where unions are not present, has been town hall meetings.

But in McAlester, the town hall meetings were canceled by the superintendent after the legislature passed HB 1010x--the bill that provides for significant salary increases for educators, but that shortchanges other public workers' demands for a raise, and that fails to restore education funding cuts.

This made the social media activity even more important for teachers to share information. "Facebook became our town hall," Jessica said.

With teachers not being able to be involved in formal union structures in Oklahoma, much of the organizing leading up to the first day of strikes and protests on April 2 took place via social media and Facebook.

The OEA was slow to catch up to the organizing necessary for the demonstrations it endorsed, and some union leaders were dismissive of the teacher Facebook groups that got the ball rolling on organizing. This is one reason why a number of teachers have maintained their distance from the union, even if they agree with how the OEA is currently responding by supporting an ongoing walkout and protests.

One teacher Facebook page heavily covered in the mainstream media is "Oklahoma Teacher Walkout: The Time is Now." It was started by teacher Alberto Morejon and has gained more than 65,000 followers.

"Oklahoma Teachers United" (OTU) is another rank-and-file Facebook organizing page that played a key role leading into and during the strike. It was founded in November 2017 by Larry Cagle and Mickey Miller in Tulsa, Oklahoma, to express their dissatisfaction with conditions for teachers--but also as a vehicle to organize since they weren't union members.

THE TRANSITION from online to real-world organizing started small and local. OTU initially called for sickouts in the schools in metropolitan Tulsa, as the Facebook page details:

Teacher protesters would call in sick for the same day at midnight the day prior...These sickouts caused shortages in substitute coverage. This drew in parental and student concerns and successful media coverage. The media coverage resulted in parents, teachers, and students following the OTU Facebook group.

OTU then called for coordinated student actions "by contacting parents. These walkouts began at Edison and eventually spread to nearly 30 Oklahoma schools and they continue to this day. Just like the sickouts, these walkouts resulted in more media coverage, and more parents, teachers, and students following."

OTU prepared for supporters for what to do if they met resistance to staying on strike after the first day of the walkout:

If superintendents call teachers back to work, find groups of teachers in your school and call in sick and shut them down by FORCE!!! Organize with your teachers in groups of 5-15 and agree to call in at midnight for the following day. Repeat this with different groups so that not everyone uses up the same number of sick/personal days...Make those groups of teachers larger and larger until the school buckles.

Once the strike was on, the OTU called for protests at the state Capitol building where teachers taught students and students taught each other. A Newsweek article described Edmond Memorial High School educator Regan Killacky teaching AP English class the Capitol building--with an emphasis on the need for more funding for schools.

The teachers haven't relied solely on social media. Many communities, especially in poor and rural towns, have organizing experience just from trying to fill the gaps of the education system itself. Teachers often help raise money for their students' families to meet crises and pay bills, or for classroom materials and furniture.

BECAUSE THESE teachers' struggles are taking place in "right-to-work" states with severe limits on union activism, the role of local and superintendents has been important. In West Virginia, for example, county superintendents were generally supportive of the teachers and kept making the decision to keep schools closed, even after teachers' union leaders said they had made an agreement with the governor.

In Oklahoma, some superintendents have wavered, both leading up to April 2 and after, but teachers have found ways of circumventing them. In Claremont, it took substitute teachers announcing they would refuse to cover classes to pressure the superintendent to keep schools closed.

In other towns, a supportive superintendent has contributed to organizing efforts. One teacher from El Reno, Penelope, described how she was essentially "appointed" by the superintendent to get the town's teachers to Oklahoma City. Penelope and her fellow teachers organized their contingent via a barrage of e-mails, chartered buses and volunteered to do the driving themselves to save funds, and pooled money for gas.

In most cases, the main source of support for teachers has been students and parents.

Jessica Lightle said her students took her side when the community initially called her a liar for her media information campaign--they filmed informational videos and made shareable gifs of conditions in their classrooms.

In the Western Heights district in Oklahoma City, administrators successfully intimidated teachers to return to work on Tuesday, after the first day of protests--only for many classrooms to remain empty because students continued to participate with walkout.

Andrew Chen, a senior at Moore High School south of Oklahoma City, outlined the stakes a student speak-out in front of the Capitol. "If we don't do it now, it won't happen," he said. Chen said students at his school organized themselves to wear a different color every day to highlight a specific plank of the teachers' demands.

Finnley and Savannah were marching with their teachers from Kennedy Elementary on April 2. "We have holes in the roof because we don't have enough money," they explained. "Our teacher has to buy everything, but sometimes we don't have enough money--and we need it."

Meanwhile, Hanaa Bensaoud, from Edmond Santa Fe High School, described how students were looking at the big picture:

Teachers are teaching us more than just lesson plans. They're teaching us to be adults with a voice. Our teachers deserve a raise that the legislators don't repeal after a few days. In Oklahoma City, they don't have teachers--they have long-term substitutes. We deserve teachers. This isn't just about getting a living wage. It's about us raising the future.

Some students went into the Capitol building on April 2 to seek out their representatives--the way they're supposed to, according to government classes--but they were turned away.

Gianna, a senior from Moore High School, said students were writing messages to lawmakers instead. They expected those to be ignored, too--but the students felt they needed to raise their voices however they could. "Everyone has a part to play and pay in how things are run," Gianna added. "The rich should pay more in taxes. The state of Oklahoma is really broken right now."

MANY TEACHERS took sick leave for the whole of the first week of the strikes, anticipating the need to stay out as long as it takes for their demands to be heard.

Teachers and students will find it more difficult to continue with the statewide demonstrations, however. There is the cost of staying in Oklahoma City to attend protests for teachers from far-flung communities, and students in poor communities often depend on schools to be open for daily meals.

Programs like the Regional Food Bank are helping to fill the gap, and churches and even some school buildings have opened up for volunteer childcare. But maintaining this support on a wider basis will take broader coordination that hasn't yet materialized.

Social issues come into play in other ways. Mary, a teacher in an elementary school in Oklahoma City and the building rep for the AFT at her school, said she was frustrated by the inactivity of the current union leadership while she has been fighting to increase funding and keep predominantly Black schools from closing.

Unions may be hamstrung by anti-labor laws, but the problem of union officials counseling a moderate approach and not matching militancy of their members is a matter of their own making.

Mary said that her co-workers were often scared to stay away from work and come to the Capitol, but she insisted that "they need to come experience democracy."

A key factor in strengthening the resolve of teachers has been the mass rally and quasi-occupation of the Capitol itself. Teachers see their own private stories confirmed again and again, and they strengthen and influence one another through the protests.

On Monday, when asked how long the daily protests at the Capitol would last, most teachers replied with a genuine uncertainty. Votes to stay out, either formally or through sickouts, were occurring day by day, determining whether individual schools would be closed.

By the second and third days, teachers were more likely to see the closures as potentially longer term. "We'll definitely be out for the rest of the school year" was a sentiment we heard more than once.

This hardening of resolve and confidence is clearly the result of an unyielding and insulting Republican legislature on the one hand, but also the impact collective action on the other.

THERE ARE real challenges to sustaining the movement that shouldn't be underestimated. Many teachers are currently unable to participate for long because of the cost of traveling to the capital, or because they can't afford to miss the extra hours they work at second and third jobs.

The teachers' unions themselves have become advocacy groups, without extensive experience in organizing and member involvement, much less strikes. Thus, setting up a strike fund remains a challenge for the movement.

Nevertheless, rank-and-file teachers have stepped up to meet the challenges so far by creating their own means of communication and organizing tools for collective action.

Teachers like Jessica and Mary have emerged as leaders of the organizing, whether or not they're part of a union right now. Their initial steps have already won them support from their co-workers and communities that they may not have expected in a conservative state--one where "activism" has been met with hostility or the threat of termination.

If more teachers follow their example and speak out, they may be similarly surprised by how many others already share their concerns and join the fight.

Many teachers are now past the point of fear because they feel they have nothing left to lose. "I have two options left," Jessica Lightle told us. "I can put myself out there and change my school, or I can put myself out there, get fired and move to Texas, where I can double my paycheck anyway."

That sentiment was echoed by other teachers and activists. Looking to the future of labor organizing in Oklahoma, Mary from Oklahoma City sees the walkout as a call to action. She believes her school will be out for the rest of the school year. "This is my job now," she said. "I didn't know it was my job, but I'm an activist now."

Robin Rabotnitsa and Jon Reynolds contributed to this article.

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