OKLAHOMA CITY, Okla. – Over 30,000 gathered in Oklahoma City on Monday to protest continued cuts to the states education budget. Teachers, students, families and concerned citizens arrived at the Capitol building to make sure their voices were being heard by legislators. However, rather than addressing their constituents, policymakers in the “reddest of red states” were conspicuously absent.
Oklahoma, which rates amongst the lowest in education performance in the nation, has been targeted for several years by neoconservative legislators seeking to defund and privatize public education entirely. However, collective bargaining agreements negotiated between teaching staff and the state have prevented pro-privatization efforts. The American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, has been one of the most active nationwide organizations working to put an end to public education as part of a broader agenda to defund all taxpayer financed services and replace them with private contractors. In Oklahoma, ALEC has been particularly active and has succeeded in swaying many policymakers. Oklahoma’s governor, Mary Fallin and Senator Glenn Coffee have both repeatedly won “legislator of the year” awards from the lobbyist company. Additionally, they have received a great deal of support from the organization.
In response to the continued cuts in education spending, professional educators organizations including teachers unions have begun mobilizing to defend services. Civic leaders from across the state also joined teachers and students in Oklahoma City and solidarity. John Tuttle a member of the Oklahoma State School Boards Association and President-Elect of the National School Boards Association expressed his belief “that public education is a civil right and the cornerstone of our democracy.”
Although the debates over public services in general and education in particular have grown increasingly partisan at the legislative level, polls indicate that voters are united on the issue at the grassroots level. In Oklahoma, the upsurge in grassroots activity has spurned many Republican lawmakers to cross the aisle in defense of the state’s beleaguered teachers. Several Republican legislators including Rep. Lee Denney, author of HB 2642 that sought to increase education spending, were present alongside Democratic legislators at the rally.