As Oklahoma teachers join colleagues in West Virginia and Kentucky who have launched statewide walkouts to protest lousy pay and insufficient education funding, one particular group of educators is using their juice to boost public support in their generally Republican, tax-averse states.
Even before the Oklahoma walkout began April 2, coaches were taking the lead in making the case that years of tax cutting — the state has cut $192 million in education funding since 2009, more than any state in the country, according to a study — was desiccating the quality of education in the state and — if that wasn’t enough — causing anyone with athletic aspirations to leave the state.
In a March 18 editorial in the Daily Oklahoman, the Oklahoma City newspaper, Mike Dunn described his shock at what he saw when he recently returned to Oklahoma as athletic director and football coach after 11 years in neighboring, and better-funding, Texas. Dunn, who said he took the Del City job because of his personal ties to the area, described Texas as a magnet for Oklahoma teachers and coaches sick of not receiving a pay raise in 10 years, who want to work in “immaculate” buildings with all the latest equipment and books, and who want support for sports and activities.
My athletic secretary, Sylvia Watson, who is GOOD AS GOLD, and deserves a raise as much as anybody out there, informed me that we were probably $4,000 to $5,000 dollars in the negative at that time. She also informed me that we only received $11,000 total for that year. So, I started thinking about what becomes most important in football when you only have $11,000 to budget. I started talking about helmets, tackling dummies to prevent concussions, baseline testing, etc., all things for football only. I was SHOCKED again when Sylvia told me the $11,000 was for the entire athletic department, every one of the 20 athletic programs. In Texas, I was used to operating off of a football budget closer to $80,000, and the entire athletic budget of $240,000.
Not being able to hire teachers also means not being able to hire coaches. Dunn noted that most of his assistant coaches at Del City are volunteers with no school affiliation.
When teachers walked out and started showing up at the state Capitol building in Oklahoma City, coaches were front and center in the protests. From the Daily Oklahoman:
As thousands of educators from around the state walked out of the classroom on Monday and gathered at the state Capitol to take a stand against decades worth of budget cuts and a lack of investment in Oklahoma schools, students and teachers, hundreds more also came to show that teachers and coaches are a unified force.
Coaches, assistant coaches and athletic support staff all made their way to the capitol steps on Monday to advocate for their primary position as teachers.
“We’ve been doing without for so long,” said [Brandon] Johnson, who also works as an assistant football coach [at Carl Albert High School in Midwest City] as well as the head girls track coach. “Coaching is fun, but it’s like a hobby that I love, but it’s on the side.”
The state has already passed a law giving teachers a $6,100-per-year pay raise, but the walkout continues over the overall condition of schools. The issue is not just about pay, but about an overall feeling of disrespect. Having coaches — generally among the most well-known and well-respected educational figures in their community, and also often among the more outwardly conservative figures, too — speaking out has the chance to give the movement more notice and respect among Oklahomans than it might otherwise receive. Guerin Emig, a sports columnist at the Tulsa World and a native of the city, is making just that point:
If you are still puzzled by all of those teachers doing all of that marching at the state capitol Monday …
If you can’t see that the teachers’ walkout isn’t just about their salaries, but about legislators inside that capitol treating them like pigs treat their pens …
If you believe Bobby Cleveland, the 74-year-old state representative from Slaughterville who groused to Oklahoma City’s KWTV Monday morning: “They were hired to teach. They need to be in the classroom,” is onto something …
Here is my plea to you: Don’t just see them as teachers.
See them as coaches. …
Read the words of Bon Bennett, the Bartlesville track coach and government teacher who helped spur this movement with an impassioned speech at a school board meeting one month ago. Bennett posted a blog about his 3,200-meter relay team last May, four girls with diverse backgrounds who came together and won the Class 6A state championship.
“While we quibble over taxes for public schools and extra-curricular programs like sports,” he wrote, “let’s not forget one of the primary functions of public schools is learning to live with each other, respect each other, and love one another.”
Certainly, Oklahoma’s most visible coaches are taking notice. Mike Gundy, head football coach at Oklahoma State, has said he supports the teachers’ demands “100 percent.” Mike Stoops, head football coach at Oklahoma, is being more demure about stepping into politics, but as the son of a teacher he understands that their pay is “not a lot of money for all the time and effort they have to put in and be away from their families. It’s a tough situation.”
Will this result in overwhelming public support for the teachers walkout in Oklahoma, and for improving education funding as they ask? One poll says yes, although it was commissioned by the Oklahoma Education Association, a teachers’ union. So it’s a little early to say what difference it’s making.
However, coaches are doing one other thing that is likely to endear them to their athletes, and their communities. In school districts that allow sports to take place during a teachers walkout, they are showing up to coach their teams.