Thousands of teachers, school administrators, parents and students converged on the Oklahoma State Capitol Feb. 12 to protest the state’s budget crisis. They demanded that the state’s educational system not continue to be sacrificed.

The crowd at the capitol had been predicted to reach at least 20,000. Early news reports called the turnout an “overflow crowd.” The Oklahoma Education Coalition includes twelve organizations. Many of the teachers and school administrators are members of the Oklahoma Educator’s Association (OEA), which is affiliated with the National Education Association (NEA). The American Federation of Teachers (AFT) is included. The coalition has sponsored important rallies before, and a few schools were closed, but this time they shut down whole school districts all over the state, including four of the five largest districts! At previous rallies, school employees had arranged for substitutes before committing to attend protests.

Oklahoma is one of at least 36 states facing budget shortfalls this year, according to a February article by the Associated Press, which said that the estimates of state budget deficits had risen 50 percent since November. The three-month increase went from $17.5 billion to $25.7 billion.

They now say that the collective budget shortfall will reach $68.5 billion next year, and that these estimates will probably rise. The AFT said that state budgets are facing the worst crisis since World War II: “This year alone, state budget deficits are expected to reach a nationwide total of $76 billion or more.”

The Oklahoma Education Coalition pointed out that Oklahoma children are facing larger classes, loss of safety and fewer bus routes among many other problems as a result of budget cuts. Educators interviewed said that they blame the current crisis on the former Republican Gov. Frank Keating and a system of tax cuts and abatements for big business.

Oklahomans have been told that at least $158 million will be needed to continue their education program. The newly elected governor declared an emergency on the day before the big rally. He said he could free up $25 million, but the educator’s coalition said the amount was far too little. A statewide lottery and a 1-cent across-the-board sales tax increase are also being considered as sources of additional revenue. The giant Oklahoma City school district is experimenting with asking parents to volunteer to replace teachers in schools.

The author can be reached at pww@pww.org

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