Jay Chilton | April 7, 2015

A Tale of Two Rallies

Jay Chilton

An animated protester yells toward the stage on the south steps during the Oklahoma PTA rally at the state capitol in Oklahoma City Monday, March 30, 2015. (Jay Chilton / MIddleGround News)

Oklahoma City―It was a tale of two rallies. Next to the stage on the Capitol’s south steps—within the throng of teachers, parents, administrators and even a few students from across the state—the mood was confrontational, occasionally even strident. Conversely, outside the nucleus of hard-line activist protesters and teachers’ union operatives, the attitude was often one of cooperation and problem solving.

One year ago, the largest education rally in state history assembled at the Capitol. Monday, March 30, 2015, less than a third of that high-water-mark raised their signs and their voices to criticize current policies at 23rd and Lincoln.

A protester advocates the return of prayer to school in hope of a miracle which would retain teachers during the Oklahoma PTA rally at the state capitol in Oklahoma City Monday, March 30, 2015. (Jay Chilton / MiddleGround News)

Many demonstrators around the edges of the Oklahoma PTA rally on March 30 said they were less concerned with personal raises and more interested in finding solutions which would provide more funds for use in the classroom.

“I don’t need a raise,” one protester said. “I make enough money for myself but we need more teachers. I have too many kids in my class; I can’t pay attention to all of them. We have to attract more teachers and keep more here or it’s just going to get worse.”

When asked if she thought eliminating the income tax for teachers as proposed by state Sen. AJ Griffin, R-Guthrie and Rep. Leslie Osborn, R-Chickasha, would help retain and attract more teachers, she was skeptical.

“Sure, it would be great if they’d do it,” she said. “But I just don’t think they’re (legislators) going to get anything done and we’ll just have the same problem next year that we had this year.”

Over the past two years, school requests for “emergency certification” to allow people without formal teacher training to teach have risen from 97 to 499, according to the State Department of Education. Total classroom vacancies were estimated at over 800 across the state at the beginning of the 2014–15 school year. However, according to the Oklahoma State School Boards Association website, current teaching vacancy levels for the state have dropped to 297 as of April 7, 2015.

In the center of the gathering, attitudes were much more adversarial. Attendees yelled back the prearranged responses when prompted by National Education Association organizational specialist Floyd Cox. Professional organizers for the PTA encouraged and prompted protesters to a heightened state, raucously cheering Rep. Scott Inman, D-Del City and loudly booing Rep. Lee Denney, R-Cushing.

Protesters were given professionally printed signs and talking points handouts as they filed along the sidewalk toward the Capitol. The stated issues listed on the handouts were teacher shortages and mandated testing.

A protester from Sand Springs, Okla. shows her displeasure with comments from the speaker during the Oklahoma PTA rally at the state capitol in Oklahoma City Monday, March 30, 2015. (Jay Chilton / MiddleGround News)

The solutions proposed for teacher shortages were increased pay, incentives for students entering colleges of education, streamlining the teacher certification process, easing financial restrictions on retirees wanting to teach and creating support policies for new teachers’ first three years in the classroom. Testing solutions suggested replacing “End Of Instruction” tests with the American College Testing (ACT) standardized college assessment test and matching state-mandated tests to coincide with federally mandated tests. Further demands included improving the accountability system for schools, making permanent parent and teacher involvement with Reading Sufficiency Act retention decisions and removing mandated test scores as a factor in teacher evaluations.

Students who, according to them, were given special excused absences to attend the rally stood with signs in the midst of the roaring crowd, unable to articulate why they were there.

“I don’t know what it means. I’m just here to support education,” one said when asked about her sign advocating changes in the teacher retirement structure. “We just got to get out of class for the day.”

The impassioned speeches by supportive superintendents, legislators, students, teachers and appointed leaders at times were laced with angry shouts and finger pointing toward the capitol building behind them.

An Oklahoma PTA organizer yells toward the stage on the south steps during the Oklahoma PTA rally at the state capitol in Oklahoma City Monday, March 30, 2015. (Jay Chilton / MiddleGround News)

At other times, gestures of open-armed gratitude and supportive praise for the democratic legislators standing on the steps above the crowd assembled in a show of support for the protesters.

Oklahoma PTA expected 50,000 people to attend the rally. An estimated 7,000 assembled before the south steps. Nearly one year earlier, on March 31, 2014, an estimated 25,000 teachers, students, parents and legislators converged on Oklahoma City to protest and demand increased funding for education. This year, fewer than a third of that number made the trip.

By Jay Chilton
Senior Reporter
MiddleGround News
Follow me @jaychilton

Jay Chilton

Independent Journalist

Jay Chilton is a multiple-award-winning photojournalist including the Oklahoma Press Association’s Photo of the Year in 2013. His previous service as an intelligence operative for the U.S. Army, retail and commercial sales director, oil-field operator and entrepreneur in three different countries on two continents and across the U.S. lends a wide experience and context helping him produce well-rounded and complete stories. Jay’s passion is telling stories. He strives to place the reader in the seat, at the event, or on the sideline allowing the reader to experience an event through his reporting. He earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in journalism from the University of Central Oklahoma with a minor in photographic arts. Jay and his wife live in Midwest City with three dogs and innumerable koi enjoying frequent visits from their children.

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