DUNCAN, Okla. — On Easter morning, at the nearby Baptist church, Kenita Self closed her eyes and bowed her head in prayer.
The teacher prayed for her third-grade students, who face a high-stakes reading test this year that will determine whether they advance to fourth grade. She prayed for their futures. And she prayed that she was doing the right thing by not showing up Monday morning, instead joining thousands of teachers at the state Capitol to protest the deep cuts to education.
Leaving behind their classrooms, educators are set to travel from the far reaches of the state on chartered school buses and in caravans of cars, hoping to press lawmakers into restoring education funding.
“I know it’s the right thing to do,” Self said, standing in the kitchen of a colleague who hosted an arts-and-crafts sign-making party.
Oklahoma’s schools and educators have endured some of the steepest cuts in education in the last decade, reductions that are evident in dwindling supplies, aging textbooks and the pay stubs of teachers. Before last week, state lawmakers have not raised the minimum salary for teachers in a decade, making them among the worst paid in the nation.
[ ‘It just hurts my heart’: Low pay, big classes are the plight of Oklahoma teachers ]
Monday’s walkout is part of a wave of protests from educators furious over stagnant wages and cuts to education funding. Teachers in West Virginia won a 5 percent raise after a nine-day strike, emboldening educators across the country. Several schools in Kentucky were forced to close Friday as teachers left classrooms to head to the statehouse to protest school pension reform. Arizona teachers, who have been protesting at the state Capitol, threatened to strike, demanding a 20 percent raise and restoration of funding cuts.
The cuts in Oklahoma also had dire consequences for schools. Districts have not been able to maintain buildings, so students shiver through the winter in classrooms with faulty heating, share long-outdated textbooks and become accustomed to a rotating cast of teachers. Many school districts have moved to four-day school weeks because they cannot afford to keep the lights on for five days.
Adjusted for inflation, the amount the state spends per student has fallen nearly 30 percent over the past decade, according to the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
After lawmakers this year again cut the education budget, a fed-up superintendent began polling his colleagues to see whether they would be interested in backing a strike. Then, inspired by West Virginia’s educators, teachers in Oklahoma — who in 2016 made less money on average than their counterparts there — began planning their own walkout, organizing on Facebook. Teachers demanded a $10,000 raise for themselves and a $5,000 raise for other school workers and an additional $200 million in education funding.
[ With state budget in crisis, many Oklahoma schools hold classes four days a week ]
The movement has pushed people like Self — who described herself as quiet and who has never participated in a protest — to the front lines of the battle for school funding. About a dozen teachers gathered at the home of Jami Cole, a third-grade teacher at Horace Mann Elementary, and curled up on a plush sectional sofa and on the carpet, huddling over posters and expertly tracing letters with glitter glue.
Cole said she was devastated last week when lawmakers — pressed into action by the threat of a statewide teacher strike — passed a bill that fell far short of teachers’ demands: a $6,000 raise for teachers and about $50 million in additional funding for schools. Then, lawmakers sought to repeal a tax increase on hotels that is critical to the funding increases, according to the Oklahoman.
She watched the drama unfold on television, broadcast live from the statehouse by a local news station.
“It just broke my heart,” Cole said. When the bill passed, she broke down crying. “We were dejected and disheartened … now I’m just angry.”
The bill’s passage has thrown the teacher walkout in jeopardy in some school districts that have pulled their support of it, leaving teachers nervous to abandon the classroom. Other schools have polled their teachers to find out how many would walk out, allowing teachers to decide whether schools will open.
But many teachers, like Cole, remain dissatisfied with the bill signed into law by Gov. Mary Fallin. Alberto Morejon, a 25-year-old middle school social studies teacher who started a Facebook group to organize the walkout, said the movement in the state legislature is evidence that the walkout is working.
“They had to make us go to the extreme, and now they’re just trying to throw a Band-Aid on it and it’s just not going to work,” Morejon said.
[ Arizona teachers, among the nation’s lowest paid, threaten to strike ]
Craig McVay, superintendent of El Reno Public Schools, said he is leaving it up to teachers to decide whether they want to walk out. He shared anecdotes of teachers working second and third jobs — including a music teacher who drove to Oklahoma City to work at an Olive Garden after a full day at school.
Teachers, he said, have grown deeply distrustful of state lawmakers who repeatedly pledged to give them a raise and to restore cuts to education but failed to do so.
“It’s just really an ugly time. I really believe it’s going to get uglier,” McVay said. “It’s going to get a little Western out there.”
On yellow poster board, Self used shiny sticker letters to write “MY KIDS ARE WORTH IT.” Around the letters, in smaller print, she wrote the names of all of her students: Maci, Landon, Jesse and Ava — about two dozen children in all.
She looked down at her creation and tapped the board: “I feel like I have to have a voice for these guys.”