I love history. I love reading it, talking about it, analyzing it, and thinking about it. The reason I love the subject so much is that it teaches you to understand how complex and dynamic events in the world are. It allows you to see how a relatively small event is part of a greater whole. It’s the reason I don’t jump on bandwagons carelessly when people grab their torches and pitchforks. It’s the reason that while I can get angry and upset and offended about things just like anyone else, I take a step back and think about what part I play in all of it, and why we’re in a situation that has come to this point. Recently, BuzzFeed ran an article that on its surface deals with a cut-and-dried issue, but actually is an indicator of a larger, more complex problem.
In this article, BuzzFeed talked about a teacher in Oklahoma (my state of residence) who apparently has had a long history of posting sexist, racist, Islamophobic, and homophobic things to his Facebook page. He has called for the death of Muslims, ranted that same-sex marriage will bring on God’s wrath, called Michelle Obama a man, and called the culture of American youth (his students) “freaks.” Yes, even in small-town Oklahoma we have freaks, geeks, and weirdos. BuzzFeed interviewed some of the teacher’s former students who recall that he brought his biases into the classroom, that his Facebook has always been full of this stuff, and that it appears that the local school system already knew about his history.
Now, on the surface, it would be easy to blame this on Oklahoma being a red state full of bigots and hillbillies because, yes, they do exist here. It would be easy to blame this on apathetic or even sympathetic school administrators, and it would be easy to say that this is typical of a place like Oklahoma. In some regards, you have an argument, but not the whole picture here. Oklahoma is as diverse as most anywhere else in the country, but yes, it is about as red as a red state can get — this doesn’t mean that this level of bigotry and hatred is tolerated by all or covered up by the schools because they’re sympathetic to it. This type of stuff is not welcome in our schools here, at least on paper, nor is it typical of our teachers. It is, however, a byproduct of a major problem our state has had for a few years now, and one that extends beyond Oklahoma’s borders.
We treat our public schools like garbage, pay our teachers insulting wages, and do everything we can to not fix them because of stupid reasons (mostly related to taxes).
Oklahoma is third from last in teacher pay, with salaries starting at just above $30,000 a year and averaging in the mid 40s; even for a state with a low cost of living, this is an insultingly small amount of pay for the work teachers do. There have been no pay raises for eight years. Additionally, our state legislature manages money like a drunk in Vegas and has failed to pass any increases in the education budget. In fact, our state is in the middle of a budget crisis so bad that many school districts have been forced to go to a four-day school week because they can’t afford the extra day. It got this way because our largest industry, oil and gas, has some of the lowest state taxes in the country and essentially dictates policy to our state government.
A few years ago, when oil was a lot more expensive and the business was booming, the state weathered the Great Recession with ease and did quite well. This didn’t last once we fracked our way into cheap fossil fuels and the market for them collapsed along with our economy. To boot, lobbyists somehow convinced state voters that a minuscule sales tax hike to fill the education budget gap was bad and was shot down on Election Day, meaning there still a budget shortfall of almost a billion dollars.
Yeah, Oklahoma played itself pretty well.
What does this have to do with this bigoted teacher and the inaction of the school system to address it? Well, like I said, look at the bigger picture here. All our teachers are gone. They moved to other states or to private schools because the pay sucks, the conditions suck, and the pay for the amount of work a teacher does sucks. It’s so bad that the state is hiring folks who aren’t professionally trained teachers under emergency teaching certificates. What this means is that schools can’t afford to let go of any teachers because at least they’re still here and want to do the work, even if they’re bigots, incompetent, or flat-out unqualified. This affects innocent children who would rather not have a teacher go on a tirade about how Obama is a secret Muslim and “the gays” are out to steal their precious bodily fluids instead of teaching them trigonometry, Shakespeare, or the Gettysburg Address. If it were possible, the school systems would rather not have these terrible people anywhere near a classroom, but frankly, they’re victims too.
It would be easy for so many people to sit back, point and laugh at Oklahomans for being stupid ignorant hillbillies, and proclaim they’re getting what they deserve. Yet, to return to the big picture, you do realize that with that kind of attitude, you’re throwing thousands of kids under the bus so you can have a good laugh at the yokels? No, there’s not much you can really do to change the situation the state has found itself in, but it is silently encroaching into many of your states too and will probably be amplified by Trump’s choices to run the Department of Education. Our lack of interest in supporting public education in this country, to give it the funds it needs to hire good people and to open minds and expand horizons because either you don’t have kids, you’re too busy, you don’t care, or “it’s someone else’s problem” means that we are setting ourselves up for long-term failure.
The funding desert means our children will be denied opportunities, experiences, and educations that we know open minds and hearts. We’re forcing the schools to try to do more with less and even worse people to do it. All of this will affect you whether you have kids or not. These students will be the ones teaching schools, passing laws, providing our medical care, running our businesses, or acting as our police or soldiers. Whether you like kids or not, whether they’re just for “breeders,” or you think you shouldn’t have to pay taxes because you don’t have any, it will bite you back in the end. This horrifying Oklahoma teacher is simply a symptom of a rampant disease infecting our entire nation.