- Associated Press - Monday, March 31, 2014

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) - A huge crowd of teachers, parents and children amassed at the Oklahoma Capitol building Monday to call for an increase in school funding, which hasn’t reached its pre-recession levels despite the addition of tens of thousands more students to the state’s classrooms.

Waving signs that read “Education Funding=Economic Growth” and “Stop Playing Politics With Our Kids,” the demonstrators demanded that lawmakers appropriate more taxpayer dollars to public education.

“I’m here hoping that my presence will encourage our state government and state Department of Education to do the right thing for our children,” said Denise Duck, a third-grade teacher from Sulphur, who was among what the Oklahoma Highway Patrol estimated was a crowd of at least 25,000.

“I’ve heard the words for years. I want to see the action,” Duck said.

Public schools today are operating with roughly 1,500 fewer teachers and on $200 million less than in 2008, despite an increase of about 40,000 students, according to the Oklahoma Education Coalition. Educators said per-pupil spending by the state is $3,032, which ranks next-to-last among the 50 states.

“We’re 49th in the nation. Our kids are worth way more than that,” said Brandi Ashford, a parent with children in the third and eighth grades in Edmond Public Schools.

Education leaders decried income tax cuts and tax incentive programs for horizontal and deep well oil and gas drilling, which they said has deprived the state of hundreds of millions of dollars in tax revenue that could have gone toward eduction.

“Our legislators are failing us,” said Peter Markes, a music teacher from Edmond North High School and the 2014 Oklahoma Teacher of the Year.

Educators also called for a pay raise for teachers, their first in seven years. According to the National Education Association, the average starting salary for an Oklahoma teacher is $31,606 per year, while the national average is $36,141.

“It’s about respect,” said Keith Ballard, superintendent of Tulsa Public Schools. “It is about respecting the people who work with our most precious resource - our children.”

Hundreds of teachers visited lawmakers’ offices to deliver letters from their school districts and make personal appeals for more funding for public education.

Education groups support House-passed legislation that would appropriate $57.5 million a year in additional revenue to public education when state revenue growth is at least 1 percent until new revenue totals $575 million. The measure is pending in the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Annette Cain, a second-grade teacher at Deer Creek, said the state’s support for public education has diminished even as it has raised the bar for student academic achievement. About 678,000 students are enrolled in Oklahoma’s public schools this year.

“It’s minimizing our teachers,” Cain said. “We’re OK with increasing standards, but you’ve got to have the funding to do it.”

House Speaker Jeff Hickman, R-Fairview, has said House Republicans want as much as $125 million in new funding for public schools next year. But Senate Appropriations Chairman Clark Jolley, R-Edmond, said that is doubtful because lawmakers already have $188 million less to spend than last year.

Gov. Mary Fallin was in Washington, D.C., on Monday for a workforce conference, but Secretary of Education and Workforce Development Robert Sommers said the rally demonstrates how important public education is to Oklahomans.

“Our priorities and the public’s priorities are the same - we need to get more money into common education in particular and education generally, and we know that’s a priority across the board,” Sommers said.

Following the rally, Superintendent of Schools Janet Barresi issued a statement describing the turnout as “very impressive” and “a testament to the importance of education.”

“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,” Barresi said. “Our teachers certainly need and deserve a salary increase that will keep them in Oklahoma and in the teaching profession.”

Jonathan Small, vice president for policy at the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, a conservative think tank, said that while state appropriations may not have returned to pre-recession levels, schools are receiving more in federal and local funds.

“That’s plenty of revenue to make sure that we fairly compensate teachers and to make sure that we train students well so they can succeed in core academic areas,” Small said.


Associated Press writer Sean Murphy contributed to this report.

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