The Enid News and Eagle, Enid, OK

March 31, 2014

25,000 rally at Capitol for education funding

By Janelle Stecklein, CNHI Oklahoma Reporter
Enid News & Eagle

OKLAHOMA CITY — Close to 25,000 people waved signs, chanted and cheered Monday along the steps of the Capitol in hopes of convincing the Legislature to spend more money on education.

“We can, we can, we can do better!” and “Fund us now!” the mass of people chanted.

The rally — organized by Oklahoma Education Association, Oklahoma PTA and other groups — was a “fantastic success,” said state PTA President Jeffrey Corbett, a Stillwater resident.

“The crowd was tremendous. They were fired up,” Corbett said.

He relayed reports of highway backups because so many people were trying to attend.

The rally was the largest at the Capitol in more than two decades. Despite the crowds, no major incidents were reported, said Oklahoma Highway Patrol Maj. Rusty Rhoades.

Participants said they hoped to persuade legislators to reverse what they call years of cuts to public schools.

“I hope that the legislators will sit up and take notice,” said Sandra Bush, an Enid High School math teacher. “It’s too bad when we feel that we have to leave our classrooms to make a statement and be heard.”

State appropriations for schools has dropped from more than $2 billion in fiscal year 2009 to about $1.8 billion this year, according to the state Department of Education. Enrollment has increased from about 654,000 to about 681,000 during the same period.

“We feel like teachers have taken the hit over and over again, and our kids are suffering because of it,” said Terri Roberts, a third-grade teacher from Muskogee.

Across the Capitol lawn, Jasmine Exum, 16, a sophomore at Edmond North High School, sat with three friends.

“We just kind of thought it was wrong to cut school funds,” said Exum.

Though Monday was a school day, the Edmond district allowed students to go to the rally if they had signed permission slips, she said. The four friends rode a school bus to the rally, which Exum said was her first.

Clare Thomas, 72, sat in a chair and held a sign that read “McAlester Public Schools.” She and her two sons are all products of Oklahoma public education, she said.

“I’m not a parent right now. I’m not a teacher. I’m a retired old lady,” Thomas said. “I want to make sure what we received continues in the future.”

Tony Scantlin, an art teacher from Tahlequah, said the state ranks 49th nationally in spending per pupil but second in prison funding.

“There’s never been enough money for schools,” said Scantlin. “I think that money’s there. It’s just not getting where it’s needed.”

Jonathan Small, vice president for policy at Oklahoma Council of Pubic Affairs, agrees the money isn’t getting where it needs to, but he said there’s more than enough budgeted for schools.

During an interview, Small cited figures that factor cost of living and common education spending, and show Oklahoma actually ranks 28th to 30th in the nation, not 49th.

Oklahoma ranks 10th in the number of school districts and 11th in administrative spending, he said. Less should be allocated to administrative costs, he said, and more to teachers and classrooms.

“It really is a revenue allocation situation,” he said. “Our common education revenues and spending are at an all-time high. We definitely need to do a much better job in how we allocate resources.”

State Rep. Mike Turner, R-Edmond, said he was unhappy some districts canceled classes so teachers could come lobby legislators. He said he supports educators’ rights to lobby, but they should do it on their own time.

Not all teachers supported the message of Monday’s rally, he said, adding he spoke to constituents who “felt it was a waste of time and resources.”

Turner said he supports “appropriate use” of taxpayer money when funding schools.

“We need to discuss some really ugly words such as administration consolidation,” he said, adding that it’s also time to look at the school funding formula to ensure it’s equitable.

Turner said he did not attend the rally.

Some legislators did, however. Democrats had pledged they would be at the rally to show support for educators.

They included state Senate Minority Leader Sean Burrage, D-Claremore. Burrage pitched a tent outside the Capitol on Sunday, just so he could be among the first to greet educators Monday morning.