By Heide Brandes and Lenzy Krehbiel-Burton
OKLAHOMA CITY/TULSA, Okla. (Reuters) – Oklahoma parent Matt Reynolds backs a teachers’ strike that has shut schools statewide, but each day it drags on is another he has to pay for daycare for three of his children.
“I’m mad at the teachers for walking out, but I’m more mad at the government for forcing them to do this,” said Reynolds, a 51-year-old chef in Yukon.
Lawmakers and striking teachers remained at odds over the state’s financing of its public education on Thursday, the 11th day of a walkout that has affected about a half million students.
The standoff is testing the patience of parents, many of whom support the labor action after seeing firsthand the fallout from slashed education budgets. But they are weary of making special accommodations for their children, and worry about how the missed class time will affect upcoming state testing and national advanced placements exams.
Some parents said the strike that started on April 2 has made them consider private schools, home schooling or moving to a district with more secure funding. Many said the prospects of a prolonged strike would eventually lead them to lobby their local districts to return to class.
“I’m at the point where if education doesn’t get adequate funding, I’ll say screw it and home school my kids since we can’t afford to move,” said Lisa Snell, who has been forced to take her two children to work during the strike.
Snell’s empathy runs deep for the state’s teachers, who are among the worst paid educators in the United States.
She has been asked to provide pencils, crayons, paper and tissue for the struggling elementary school her children attend near Tahlequah in eastern Oklahoma. Her kids bring home school books in tatters and have to go shoeless in gym class to preserve the decaying floor, Snell said.
“I know what those teachers are going through,” Snell said. “It’s not just about raises.”
The main union in the strike is urging parents to make their voices heard by voting in this year’s midterm election for candidates who back increased spending, or have educators run for office.
Republicans, who dominate state politics, are appealing to conservative voters by saying they have done enough by raising education spending by more than 20 percent, and more spending would be wasteful.
PRESSURE EXPECTED TO MOUNT
The legislature passed its first major tax hikes in a quarter century to raise funds for schools and increase teacher pay by an average of $6,100. Educators are asking for a $10,000 raise for teachers over three years.
“We’ve accomplished a whole lot, and I just don’t know how much more we can get done this session,” state Representative John Pfeiffer, a top Republican lawmaker, told reporters this week on the education funding issue.
Pressure is likely to build on legislators and teachers to reach a deal that gets kids back to class.
For the most part, teachers have been given permission by their districts to participate in walkouts and have been paid, with the idea that they would make up for lost time as they do for closures due to inclement weather. But that could soon change as the cushion in school calendars runs out.
Two large districts, Bartlesville and Sand Springs, ordered schools to resume on Thursday. Tulsa Public Schools, the state’s second-largest district, has run out of inclement weather days and plans to lengthen school days when students return.
Legislators also are in a tough spot, said Gregg Garn, dean of the Jeannine Rainbolt College of Education at the University of Oklahoma.
“They have kids in public schools and they live in the communities,” he said. “They are getting the signal that the investments need to be there.”
Candice Stubblefield, 43, of Midwest City wants a quick resolution.
“They have missed so many days now,” said Stubblefield, whose daughter attends public school. “Both the legislature and teachers seem like they are being stubborn and unyielding.”
(Reporting by Lenzy Krehbiel-Burton in Tulsa, Heide Brandes in Oklahoma City and Jon Herskovitz in Austin, Texas; Writing by Jon Herskovitz; Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Richard Chang)