"I have 177 reasons to fund my school," reads one teacher's sign at the State Capitol in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, on April 2, 2018. Photo: Oklahoma Education Association

National Indian Education Association supports teacher walkout

The nation's largest Indian education organization is throwing its support behind a teacher strike in Oklahoma, citing the large numbers of Indian students in the Sooner State.

More than 100,000 Native students attend public schools in the state, National Indian Education Association President Dr. Jolene Bowman noted in a statement on Monday. They deserve a quality education provided by adequately funded schools, she said.

"With their strike, Oklahoma educators are demanding the state fulfills its' responsibility and fully fund public schools and provide raises to educators," Bowman, who is a citizen of the Stockbridge-Munsee Band of Mohican Indians, said in the statement. "Funding for textbooks, supplies, and professional development are critical and are necessary to create positive, culturally-responsive learning environments where students can be inspired and thrive."

"When teachers do not have the resources and support they need, Native students and all students suffer," Bowman said.

The strike began earlier in the day, as thousands of educators walked off the job to call for more funds for schools, pay and benefits. Many took their cause to the State Capitol in Oklahoma City, where a newly enacted bill has faced criticism for not directing enough money to a system that serves over 693,000 students.

“Our students are the real victims of the legislature’s failure to properly fund education and our state core government services,” said Oklahoma Education Association President Alicia Priest. “Our class sizes have ballooned to impossible numbers. Our schools can’t buy text books for every child. We’ve dropped not only fine arts and foreign language courses, we’ve also dropped advanced placement classes.”

But Gov. Mary Fallin (R) said the revenue package provides an average pay raise of $6,000 for teachers, which she called the largest in state history. Along with an additional $50 million for funding and textbooks, she said the bill boosts education spending by nearly 20 percent.

“I appreciate teachers coming to the Capitol today to talk with their elected officials. During the past three years, I have called for an increase in teacher salaries." Fallin said in a press release on Monday.

Through their Class III gaming compacts, tribes have long contributed revenues to education in the state. In fiscal year 2017, the Education Reform Revolving Fund received $117.6 million, according to a report from the Oklahoma Gaming Compliance Unit.

Some tribes also contribute money directly to public education. The Cherokee Nation donated $5.4 million to 108 school districts in northeastern Oklahoma this year, funds that are derived from the sale of car tags to tribal citizens.

Still, public schools have faced shortfalls in recent years, but not because of tribes -- their payments to the state have risen. Instead, other sources of revenue, including energy and certain forms of taxation, have come in lower than expected, leading to cuts in recent years and prompting politicians to look for other ways to boost the bottom line.

An expansion of Indian gaming is among the ideas on the table. Adding ball and dice games -- and making tribes share the revenues -- could bring $22 million next year and $49 million in the following year, according to lawmakers.

The Oklahoma Education Association has voiced support for the expansion but it has not been approved by the Legislature. Tribes would still have to negotiate new compacts and install ball and dice games in order for revenues to kick in.

According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, Oklahoma has failed to keep up with inflation and rising costs. As a result, touted gains in education funding have not actually resulted in progress due to cuts stemming back to 2008, when the entire nation fell into an economic recession.

"For example, Oklahoma’s $2-per-pupil increase this year was far from enough to offset the state’s $1,058-per-pupil cut over the previous nine years," the center said in a November 2017 report that called the last decade a "punishing" one for public education. The report noted that politicians in Oklahoma approved tax cuts rather than restore funding to pre-recession levels.

"It is impossible to reverse a decade of student growth that has outpaced funding for public education in a single revenue bill or legislative session," the Oklahoma Department of Education acknowledged as it touted the pay raise.

But Oklahoma is not alone in funding woes. Teachers in Kentucky also walked out on Monday in protest of spending levels. Educators in West Virginia went on strike on February 22 and returned to work after nine days after securing a 5 percent pay raise.

The overwhelming majority of American Indian and Alaska Native students attend public schools, both on and off reservations. In Oklahoma, they represent 15 percent of the student population, according to NIEA.

The Bureau of Indian Education oversees 5 schools in Oklahoma. They are funded by the federal government, not by the state.

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