OKLAHOMA CITY – State legislators who criticized Oklahoma educators for taking a day to rally at the state Capitol for adequate education funding apparently don't understand what democracy is all about, Tulsa Public Schools Superintendent Keith Ballard told participants at the statewide education funding rally Monday.
"They don’t seem to believe in what we teach in our schools, and that is the basic American right to free speech as the center of government," he said from the south Capitol steps. "If we don't speak up for our kids, who will?"
Nearly 25,000 teachers, parents and students from all corners of the state converged at the state Capitol on Monday to urge legislators to invest in Oklahoma's public education system.
"This is not about funding; it's about respect," Ballard said to enthusiastic cheers. "It is highly disrespectful to be ranked 49th in the country in per-student funding."
He was the last of a slew of speakers who urged state legislators to make public schools a priority, noting that the funding for Oklahoma yearly public education funding levels are 22.8 percent below 2008 prerecession levels even as schools educate nearly 40,000 more students.
Many participants held signs that read, "678,000 reasons to fund public education in Oklahoma," referring to the number of public school students in the state, and chanted: "We can. We can. We can do better."
House Minority Leader Rep. Scott Inman, D-Del City, said many legislators weren't at the Capitol on Monday morning to avoid their constitutents' visit.
"We happen to believe that we work for you," he said. "This is what it looks like when thousands of educators tell misbehaving legislators, 'Don't come to the principal's office; we'll bring the principal's office to you.' "
Inman urged educators and parents to let those unresponsive legislators hear their voices at the ballot box.
David Blatt, executive director of the Oklahoma Policy Institute, told educators and parents that they shouldn't believe it when legislators tell them there just isn't enough money for schools because it's not true.
"Lawmakers are considering automatic tax cuts that would be triggered whenever revenue grows modestly. But we need a better trigger. How about no more income tax cuts until per-pupil funding climbs back to where it was in 2008? How about no tax cut until our teacher salaries are no longer among the lowest? How about no tax cut until our students are no longer being taught from outdated textbooks? How about no tax cut until our college graduation rate reaches the national average?
"The message from Oklahomans is clear: 'Don’t cut our taxes until you fund the services we need,' " he said.
Rep. Lee Denney, R-Cushing, author of the House Bill 2642 school-funding measure, said during the rally that she crafted her bill after a 2006 law that earmarked millions in state revenue for state road improvement. HB 2642 passed the House on a 94-1 vote last month and is pending with the state Senate.
"There comes a time when policymakers must realize a major investment is needed to move the economy forward," she said. At the time, state legislators deemed the state's investment in roads and bridges a priority for economic development, and it has been successful, she said.
"This bill is the best way to put money into the (school funding) formula and let school boards decide how it is spent," Denney said.
John Tuttle, a board member of the Oklahoma State School Boards Association and president-elect of the National School Boards Association, said it's time for Oklahoma legislators to stop making excuses and stand together for public schools.
"I believe that public education is a civil right and the cornerstone of our democracy," he told the crowd. "The question is, 'Are our children worth it?' "
Two students -- Erika Vinson of Warner Public Schools and Asher Nees, a Norman Public Schools student and president of the Oklahoma Association of Student Councils -- both spoke eloquently about how teachers have changed their lives.
Vinson likened teachers to gardeners who she said "have more flowers to look after with fewer resources in drought-like conditions. These are who made me what I am, not -- absolutely not -- the end-of-instruction tests."
Jeffrey Corbett, president of the Oklahoma Parent Teacher Association, fired up the crowd when he said it is time to support teachers instead of putting them down.
"We must invest in teachers and give them support. We cannot do that with bargain-basement funding and unsustainable wages," he said. "It is time to turn our classrooms back over to our teachers."
State Superintendent Janet Barresi issued a statement Monday evening, saying: "Like all the educators and parents who rallied at the Capitol, I believe
Oklahoma's public education system needs more money going to the classroom, and not administration.
"Our teachers certainly need and deserve a salary increase that will keep them in Oklahoma and in the teaching profession. The rally turnout was very impressive and is a testament to the importance of education."