Ginnie Graham: Don’t let public school bullies win | Columnists
The embarrassing antics of three Tulsa Public Schools board members and their supporters last week highlighted why the United States is facing a teacher shortage crisis — disrespect .
What many people don’t see watching the TPS meetings online or reading the stories is the growing anti-public school crowd in attendance. These are people who cheered on the TPS board members who walked out after voting not to hire teachers or pay utility bills. Last month, this group booed a middle school student as she spoke to the council about LGBTQ student experiences.
They become more aggressive, yelling at other people present and harassing reporters covering the meeting. Thursday’s special meeting led to the ejection of audience member Claudia Streetman, who shouted “Chairman of the Board, do your job” even after being warned to stop.
I say keep dumping people until the adults stop acting like kids.
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Members of this group often make public comments echoing national right-wing talking points, and many boast that they have no children – or sometimes even reside – in the district. They use social media as a weapon, anonymously stalking these suspected enemies and spouting lies and half-truths.
They are not problem solvers. They want to disrupt and demolish.
If you don’t live in the TPS neighborhood, don’t think you’re safe. Groups like this are popping up across the country and state, often stoked by manufactured outrage.
Edmond and Jenks board members have faced such antagonism during the pandemic from people living outside of their districts. Stillwater was blinded by anger over a toilet policy that had never been the subject of a complaint.
The most common questions school board candidates answered earlier this year were about critical race theory (a teaching approach used in college graduate programs), gender politics and race. Nothing about salary, teacher retention, or effective academic programs.
Who would want to work in such conditions?
The discussion of the real issues facing education in Oklahoma is absent. The biggest challenge is getting qualified teachers into the classrooms. Emergency certifications rose from 32 in 2011 to a record 3,833 last school year.
Many schools in Oklahoma have been forced to close occasionally due to a lack of enough teachers, substitutes or staff. The job listings are long.
It’s a national problem, but it’s exacerbated in Oklahoma by the consistent misdirection of extremists and opponents of public schools. It took two teacher walkouts to force lawmakers to do the right thing. When this sea change happened in 1990 and 2018, elected leaders did not keep pace with funding.
Even this year, with healthy coffers allowing for a 9.7% increase in legislative spending, the state Department of Education received a 0.5% increase that largely went to items specified by lawmakers. With inflation, teachers will experience a drop in salary.
The average Oklahoma teacher receives $54,804 in salary and benefits, including retirement and health care; it is not their net salary. The state ranks 35th in this measure by the National Education Association. However, the salary is not the only problem.
Oklahoma ranks 46th in spending per student, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. This reflects working conditions — classroom programs, teacher support, student resources.
If a teacher cannot get the help needed to do their job effectively, an average salary will not suffice. A growing culture war compounds this problem.
History and social studies teachers are constantly attacked for not highlighting more pro-American perspectives.
Oklahoma Bill 1775, which the TPS is currently being investigated for violation, prohibits teaching racial or gender-related subjects that would make students “uncomfortable.” If a kid feels bad about the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre or Trail of Tears, then a teacher could be in trouble.
In the last term, school librarians were targeted by conservative lawmakers for having books they found too racy or controversial. No wonder these titles deal with race and gender. These measures failed, but expect them to return.
Lawmakers had a weird obsession with bathrooms and passed a law dictating where transgender students can relieve themselves. They also banned transgender girls from participating in sports.
All of this was happening as educators dealt with a worsening mental health crisis.
Youth suicide in Oklahoma has been called a “true epidemic,” and the state has one of the highest rates of negative childhood experiences in the nation. More than one in five children in Oklahoma go hungry. Nearly 7,500 children have been abused and neglected enough to be placed in foster care, most of whom go to public schools.
These traumas appear at the school gates. Many children act out and are not ready to focus on their studies.
All of this has implications for the recruitment and retention of educators. A January survey by the National Education Association found that 80% of its members are taking on more work obligations due to unfilled jobs and 90% say burnout is a serious problem.
Behind all these statistics and rhetoric is the attitude towards teachers. The worst of it all was on display at TPS board meetings.
Teachers and staff deserve better treatment. They are professionals who do a difficult job. They do this with the aim of improving the lives of children and young people.
They are not part of a plot to indoctrinate children; they are part of a village to help parents raise healthy children.
All three TPS board members broke trust with their actions. They did not take into account the immediate consequences on students and staff. They listened to opponents instead of frontline workers.
Improving public schools means listening to those who work and attend those classrooms. This means voting in school elections. This means reading the actions taken at board meetings.
Communicate with board members and administrators about what is going well and not so well in schools based on observation. Volunteering in schools. To be present. Take out the goodness.
At Thursday’s special meeting, a counter-crowd of parents, teachers and school supporters filled a conference and overflow room. It made a difference. There was less tolerance for demagoguery.
Well, the tone changed after Streetman was escorted away.
Don’t let go. Don’t let the strong minority drown out what could be real solutions. Don’t let them spread lies or smear reputations. Don’t let the bullies win.