OKLAHOMA CITY — A top Republican lawmaker Monday encountered heckles and boos as she faced a crowd of several thousand teachers demanding increased education funding and a pay boost for teachers.
Rather than applause and cheers, Rep. Lee Denney, R-Cushing, was met by boos and chants of “Fund us now!” as well as indecipherable heckles from some of the more than 7,000 attendees at the education rally.
Denney, House of Representative speaker pro tem, tried to keep her speech upbeat as she spoke of challenges and possibilities of budget cuts, as well as controversial measures like charter school initiatives and how they could help education.
“The challenges we face in our state and our schools did not manifest overnight,” Denney said. “The solutions to these problems will therefore take time and careful deliberation to ensure that we make smart investments and appropriate policy changes."
Denney noted that since 2011, an additional $150 million has been added to education, even though most of that was to help pay for fixed costs.
But facing a $611 million budget shortfall, there was a sense of resignation from many that little progress would be made this year in increasing teacher base pay and overall education funding.
Education leaders lamented that despite an $80 million cash infusion to common education last year, the state still lags near the bottom nationally in per-pupil funding. They also complained that Oklahoma has lowest teacher pay in the region.
Becky Krueger, an elementary school principal from Ponca City, said she’s not necessarily looking for a raise for teachers — though that would certainly be nice — but rather additional funding that can be used to hire more teachers and cut class sizes.
She carried a handmade sign that had a simple math equation: “more kids – funding = dim future.”
She said her school, Woodlands Elementary, has a brand new wing that was paid for by bond money, but whether it will open as planned is in doubt since the district is struggling to staff it.
“If you can go somewhere else and make more money and have less students, why would you stay in Oklahoma?” she asked.
House Minority Leader Scott Inman told the audience that last year’s increase in funding was “so inconsequential.” Inman said it didn’t keep up with student population growth and districts actually saw a cut in per-pupil spending.
And even before the parking lots could be swept clean and the porta-potties removed from last year’s rally, which drew an estimated 20,000 participants, lawmakers approved income tax cuts, further crippling school funding, he said. Then they also rejected a proposal that would have pumped $600 million in new dollars into education over 10 years, he said.
“Today, you rally because your elected officials didn’t listen,” he told the crowd. “Today, you rally because they ignored your demand for change.”
Anita Pickett, a first-grade teacher with Bristow Public Schools, dusted off her sign that featured a large black and white skunk with the slogan “What Stinks? Oklahoma Under Funding Education” and returned to rally for a second year in a row.
But her solution to the education problems wouldn’t cost any additional money. She’d simply like lawmakers to make sure educators have more input into initiatives before they pitch bills.
“To invite teachers to the table before they write those audacious bills and see what teachers think about those bills, as well as how they might perfect them so that teachers can take back their profession rather than having it be legislatively mandated to them,” she said.