"Unhappy birthday to you. Unhappy birthday to you." Not very catchy, but very true. We celebrate the twenty-fifth anniversary of HB1017 and the hope we all had; and we mourn the reality of what education in Oklahoma looks like today.
I was there for the debate and enactment of HB1017.
Unlike Rick Cobb. Who was a college student, I’d been teaching in Norman for over ten years. I’d taken the $1000 pay cut my first year in Oklahoma, and tried not to think about how much MORE money I’d lost when we moved here from IA. We loved Norman and we loved the schools our son and daughter attended.
Norman West Mid High OEA members voted whether to join the walk out, and travel to the Capitol. I come from a long line of public school administrators, and voted ‘no’ because I feared this move would drive a wedge between teachers and administrators. I’d seen first-hand with my dad how friendships and trust could be destroyed…I appreciated the strong connection of all educators in Norman. I voted in the minority, and surprised my friends when I said I’d support the walk out and I’d go with them to the Capitol.
We trekked up together; we marched; we chanted; we carried our signs. We listened to Kyle Dahlem, president of OEA, and a personal and professional hero. We went into the Capitol and spoke with our Legislators. I remember a heated exchange with my own Rep…he was surrounded by teachers from Norman and we were peppering him with questions. He finally said, “We’ve worked for nine months on this bill!” My filter was temporarily ripped off, and I blurted, “None months? That’s a school year. You have wasted a year in my students’ lives.” Whoops. He glared at me and I glared back, waiting to see who would break eye contact first. Just to prove I could muzzle that faulty filter, I did NOT say, “Sir, I work with ninth graders. Do you think you’ll win a staring contest with me?” Didn’t say that! Wanted to. Didn’t. He broke eye-contact first.
After the special session and the vote, Governor Bellmon signed it, and HB1017 was the law. A model of reform which required and rewarded. Raised standards and provided support. WE were so hopeful.
Class sizes would drop to a manageable level. Teachers would be expected to participate in professional development every year, and would be paid a stipend for achieving the required number of contact hours. Funding would support the reforms. Oh, and teachers would get a raise. Hope…it appeared as if we were all on the same page: wanting what was best for students.
OEA produced a good summary of the story of those days in April, 1990. It's long, but worth the 30 minutes of time.
There was immediate push-back from people who didn’t want to invest in schools, and that pushback might be what we are still suffering from today…the push-back seems to have vanquished any gains we enjoyed with HB1017.
But…that support eroded. Step-by-step, reforms were abandoned. I think I got one stipend check for professional development. Teacher pay stagnated again. Class sizes inched up with the help of deregulation laws…all the gains evaporated.
Whereas administrators worked to keep high school class sizes under the required 120 students a day, we saw those numbers creep up year after year. My last years of teaching (albeit an elective, but a class that required weekly reading and writing for students and weekly reading and grading for me), my total student load was closer to 150 or 160. One memorable English 4 class had 36 students…in a room designed for an occupancy of 24. We became each other’s best friends because of the close proximity…and I lost my desk to a student every day.
Pay raises? Don’t make me laugh.
Funding? Since 2008, the state of OK has cut funding to schools more than any other state in the nation. Have prices dropped in that time? Of course not.
We have more students and less money per pupil to educate them. The false accountability of test scores has become fashionable. As have schemes to invite private charter chains into the state, and use public education funds as vouchers for private schools. Educators pay for needed supplies out of their own paychecks. This is the post-HB1017 reality.
Yesterday, the Democratic leaders reflected on the legacy of HB1017 – the initial hopes and the crushing reality. In one statement, the press release summed up all the hope…and despair…of our journey from the promise of 1990 to the wasteland of 2015:
“But we also think it’s appropriate to point out that three of its primary pillars — smaller class sizes, better pay for teachers, and increased funding for public schools — have been systematically eroded over the intervening years.”
There was a cake…but it must have tasted like ashes.
I remember voting to strike, marching, lobbying…I remember returning to my classroom so full of energy and optimism. I thought there was a change coming, one supported by both sides of the aisle.
Twenty-five years later, I’m older, and wiser, and more pessimistic. I know educators are still fighting for funding, for smaller class sizes, and yes, for raises. Educators are fighting against simplistic assessments and high stakes. We are fighting for our kids’ future.
I may have retired in the middle of this battle, but that just gives me more time to fight…while my colleagues and friends stay IN the classroom and work with our students.
Hope to despair…but we will not give up.