Educators rallying at the state Capitol on Tuesday told lawmakers they feel overworked because of overcrowded classrooms, underpaid in both salary and retirement, and under attack from politicians looking to weaken laws protecting tenured teachers.
“It's hard not to take things personal,” Matt Holtzen, a U.S. history teacher at Enid High School, said. “I think that the climate is teachers are under attack.”
Holtzen was one of roughly 1,000 members of the Oklahoma Education Association, the state's largest teachers union, who spent a day of their spring break gathered on the south steps of the Capitol before heading in to talk to legislators.
High on the list of many teachers was opposition to two bills quickly moving through the House and Senate that would do away with a teacher's right to appeal a termination decision by a local school board, known as “trial de novo.”
“I'm for protecting teachers' rights,” Holtzen said, moments before talking to Sen. Patrick Anderson. “That's a very scary thing to have employment that's at the whim of the school board. It's a political body.”
Anderson, R-Enid, listened to the concerns of several active and retired teachers from his district before returning to session for a vote.
“I support the end of trial de novo,” Anderson said in an interview after OEA members had left. “I think it's important for school boards to have the ability to fire ineffective teachers.”
Class size concerns
Growing class sizes was at the top of many teachers list of concerns — a symptom of staffing reductions at cash-strapped schools and growing populations.
“It's very hard to help the individual student,” said Leah Esker, who has 30 students in her largest English class at Whittier Middle School in Norman. “These are the biggest classes I've ever had in seven years of teaching. Everybody is feeling the pressure.”
Esker's concerns for class size were echoed by teachers from across the state, including those from Tulsa, Stigler, Enid, Midwest City and Del City.
Linda Hampton, the incoming president of the OEA, said there were about 1,600 fewer teaching positions this school year than last and the number of students in the state has increased by nearly 6,000.
The teachers wore red for the rally. Not a Republican red, Hampton said, but a nonpartisan red to inspire cooperation for the good of Oklahoma's students.
“I'm going to share with you some of the things that make me see red,” Hampton said. “I see red when I see the number of students increasing while the number of teachers decreases. I see red when support personnel don't make a living wage. I see red when I see the budget deficit being filled on the back of the teacher retirement system.”
The crowd chanted “red, red, red” after each item in Hampton's list.
Several veteran teachers at the rally noted that 20 years ago they marched for four days on the Capitol to get House Bill 1017 passed and today they are rallying to retain a number of the reforms in that bill — mandated smaller class sizes, pay raises for teachers, and the Teacher Due Process Act right to trail de novo.
“It is very much of an irony that we are still having to fight for those things when those very things proved to be effective,” Hampton said.