I gave a presentation at the Popular Culture Association National Conference in New Orleans this week nearly 10 years after hurricane Katrina killed more than 1,800 people and caused billions of dollars of damage.
I have not been here since 2007, and there is a remarkable physical difference between then and now. I’m sure if I looked hard enough or consulted with locals, I would still find signs of damage but within my “conference bubble” all seems well.
When I’m here in New Orleans, I always think of the song "Do You Know What It Means To Miss New Orleans" made famous by Louis Armstrong, a New Orleans native. Here's a version of some of the lyrics:
“Miss them moss covered vines, the tall sugar pines
Where mockin' birds used to sing
And I'd like to see that lazy Mississippi
Hurryin' into spring
“Oh the moonlight on the bayou
A creole tune that fills the air
I dream about Magnolias in bloom
And I'm wishin' I was there”
New Orleans is a unique American center for many reasons, including its geographical location, its southern and French history and, of course, its connection to the sordid history of slavery in this country. New Orleans is really the definition of diversity.
I often think of places like New Orleans or New York or even Austin when I hear about the so-called Oklahoma City renaissance. Sure, Oklahoma City has improved its game over the last decade or two, but local leaders, in particular, need to put it in some perspective.
I’m not whining here for the sake of whining, but there’s too much cheerleading and false pride in Oklahoma City that only serves corporate interests. Overall, Oklahoma City remains uptight as well with its antiquated liquor laws, and its knee-jerk initial rejection of anything new. (I’m thinking here of the initial response to the food-truck movement or how long it took to legalize tattooing.) It has a terrible, conservative newspaper that distorts political issues for its out-of-state billionaire owner. It lacks diversity or at least the celebration of diversity found in many other metropolitan cities.
Oklahoma City has potential, and it’s still a young city. But it has a ways to go. There’s nothing wrong with that. I know people might get defensive over this issue, but as I write this in my hotel room I’m glancing out the window looking at barges and tugboats making their way down the Mississippi River. Folks, it’s not the same as looking at the Bricktown Canal from the Chelino’s balcony.
My point is the city leaders, instead of looking how to increase the profits of corporations with taxpayer money, should think in larger terms. They need a lightened-up attitude and seek as much distance as possible from the state’s conservative political morass.
The fact that Gov. Mary Fallin didn’t show up at the education rally at the state Capitol Monday shows her flippant attitude towards a massive decline in education funding here and her belief she and most of her fellow Republican lawmakers think voters will side with them on the issue.
Thousands of educators showed up at the state Capitol to protest a crisis in education that has led to obscenely low teacher salaries, a major teacher shortage and completely inadequate funding of public schools. The numbers are fluid, but there’s no doubt teacher pay ranks near the bottom among the states in the country, either 49th or 48th, there are approximately 1,000 teaching vacancies in Oklahoma and education funding has dropped by nearly 24 percent since 2008.
Conservatives, such as staffers from the right-wing Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, try to muddle the issues by citing federal monies that go to school, arguing the overall funding issue paints a different picture of the issue, but their ongoing quest to privatize public education renders their arguments extremely suspect even though they are taken seriously by some in the local corporate media here.
As I’ve repeated for years and years, the decline in education funding here is part of a national, conservative movement to starve schools of financial support through direct cuts and attacking and “shaming” schools with predictable results of high-stakes testing at impoverished schools. Private companies often administrate these tests. It’s collusion. Testing companies crave bad results because that leads to even more tests that show bad results. Meanwhile, the state this year is directly attacking teachers personally here by trying to pass a measure that would prohibit the state from taking out dues from their paychecks for their professional organizations. It’s petty, true, but it’s effective in telling teachers this: Get out of Oklahoma. You’re not wanted here. Take your college degrees and commitment to teaching and get out. Move to Texas or Colorado.
A spokesperson for the no-show Fallin, according to a media report, said “ The governor made it clear she was excited to have them at the Capitol.” Note “them.” Why didn’t the spokesperson just use the term “The Other.” Later, in a press release, Fallin said, “Our educators have one of the most difficult and important jobs out there. I appreciate their service to the state and their commitment to our children. It’s great to see so many of them out here today getting involved in education policy.”
Fallin’s language is so generic to me it seems almost passive aggressive. In a psychological sense, it can be read in these more basic terms: Oh, you great people. We just really really like you. We like you even though you know this is just lip service. WE LIKE YOU. We really do. It’s patronizing.
Fallin has pointed to small funding increases in recent years as her commitment to education, but it’s simply not enough money to make any dent in the major crisis the state faces.
I’ll reiterate in a somewhat different way from what I said Monday. This battle has to be won in elections on the local and state level. If that can’t be the case because of prevailing political sentiment and/or a lack of political commitment or victory by education supporters, then if I had school-age children I would look for other education options in other states.
With the state facing a $611 million budget shortfall, which I predict will grow to close to $1 billion before the carnage in the oil patch subsides, all state agencies will be facing cuts under the Republican agenda, which places tax cuts for the wealthy above the future of its students. That will mean more teacher shortages, larger class sizes and shoddy equipment in classrooms.
The education rally at the state Capitol today should draw thousands of educators and their supporters, but they probably won’t get a warm welcome from most Republican officials.
The rally begins at 12:30 p.m. on the south side of the state Capitol building.
It’s impossible to avoid the reality. Republicans dominate state government. They hold massive majorities in both the House and Senate, the governor’s seat, and ALL statewide offices. Schools Superintendent Joy Hofmeister, a Republican, will be at the rally and speak in favor of raises for teachers, and some Republican lawmakers might support increased funding for education, but overall the GOP has created a drastic, emergency situation for our schools.
The rally, called the Brighter Future, is designed to call attention to extremely low teacher pay here, an increasing teacher shortage in the state and a 24 percent decrease in Oklahoma education funding since 2008, the most in the nation. It’s a dismal situation that has the potential to get even worse.
At this point, however, educators might just be happy if they don’t face any more cuts. The state faces a $611 million shortfall at least partially because of relatively recent income tax cuts and tax incentives given to businesses, including the state’s oil and gas industry.
What doesn’t get stated enough or loudly enough at these rallies is this: (1) The cuts to education are part of a Republican agenda, along with high-stakes testing, to dismantle public education and privatize it, and (2) if voters here continue to elect Republicans in massive numbers education funding will remain inadequate in Oklahoma. A rally won’t change those facts.
The larger point here is that although education funding should be a bipartisan issue, it definitely isn’t when it comes to the Oklahoma legislature and Gov. Mary Fallin. Fallin and conservative legislators may seem to sympathize with educators at times, but cuts to education here and elsewhere have been a part of the Republican agenda for a long time now.
Rallies are great. They show solidarity, and leave participants energized, but the real change comes in elections.