Jacob McCleland / Oklahoma Public Media Exchange
Published April 18, 2018
TULSA – “Frustrated and hopeless,” is how first grade teacher Sharon Winnie-Vann described feeling after she heard the teacher walk out ended without the desired increase in funding for education. Winnie-Vann has taught in Oklahoma schools for 24 years, the past 14 of which she has taught at Turkey Ford, a small, rural school in northeastern Oklahoma. The school has a large Native population and is located near Winnie-Vann’s own tribe, the Seneca-Cayuga Nation.
“When I first started teaching there [at Turkey Ford] we had band, we had choir, art. We had counselors. As cuts came through all that had to go. Now, we combine grades in the afternoon. It is very difficult to meet students’ needs.” When I reached her by phone, Winnie-Vann went on to tell me that the school’s science textbooks are over a decade old. The last time the small school was able to purchase “new” textbooks, they bought used books with help from a fundraiser.
Because of issues like these teachers, parents and administrators across Oklahoma staged a massive walk out to demand better staff pay and increased funding for education. The state’s teacher union ended the walkout after “hitting a wall” with state lawmakers, who only manage to pass revenue bills to generate $479 million of the $3.3 billion teachers demanded.
While factoring for inflation Oklahoma has decreased the state’s per pupil funding by 28 percent since 2008. Oklahoma pays teachers less, on average, than any other state. In the past decade, Oklahoma has cut education more than any other state in the United States.
Oklahoma also has the largest student population of Native Americans in the US. Roughly 16 percent of all students are Native. Nationally, Native students have a drop out rate twice the national average and are more than twice as likely to be disciplined than their white peers. Education experts are calling the state of education for American Indian children a national crisis. When the US signed its treaties with the 39 federally recognized tribes in Oklahoma, these treaties promised to provide education to Indian children into perpetuity.
So how is the state with the largest Native American population and the deepest cuts to education serving Native kids?
Yvonne Perryman-Matthews is a citizen of the Seneca-Cayuga Tribe and proud parent of a Jay Bulldog. However, she feels Oklahoma has “disenfranchised the education system” when “education should be a top priority.” Perryman-Matthews goes on to explain, “My kid comes home to do homework and doesn’t have a textbook. I come to find out that they kids can’t bring them home because if they don’t come back the school won’t have enough. A lot more money needs to be put into the classroom and learning materials.”
While lawmakers failed to meet the increase in funding for public education demanded by teachers, Oklahoma did pass two small revenue generating bills. One measure, the ball and dice bill, would allow Vegas style gaming and betting in tribal casinos and generate an estimate $22 million in revenue for education.
Sheila Morago of the Oklahoma Indian Gaming Association (OIGA) responded to the bill passing, “We’re excited about the ball and dice tax. We think we’ll see increased attendance at the casinos with having other options.”
While the ball and dice tax is measure that benefits both Tribal governments and public education, the debate over education funding also slipped into blaming Tribes for Oklahoma’s budget crisis. An article on Oklahoma’s KFOR begins with the question, “As the teacher walkout continues at the State Capitol, some are asking why casino gaming hasn’t provided the necessary money to fund Oklahoma’s education needs.”
But the lack of funding for education in Oklahoma has a long history, separate from gaming revenue generated by Tribe’s. In the early 1990s, Oklahoma signed into law a requirement that any tax increase must have a supermajority (75 percent) to pass through the state legislature. The result has been a steady stream of deep tax cuts with virtually no tax increases, while public services from state troopers, to prisons to public schools have been left strapped for money. Total state revenue allocated for schools is $172 million less than it was in 2018, and that total doesn’t include inflation.
While the state’s contribution to public education has been steadily decreasing, the amount Native Nations are contributing has steadily increased.
Through a compact created in 2006, Tribes pay exclusivity fees for gaming. The past three years tribes have steadily contributed record setting amounts, including $133.9 million in 2017. Since 2006, tribe’s contributions have increased by over $119 million. 88 pecent of the revenue is earmarked for public education, while the remaining goes to mental health and the general fund.
“Since 2006 when revenue sharing started, tribes have contributed a total of $1.1 billion. The revenue sharing in Oklahoma is exactly on par with other states. Money from casinos also goes to tribal governments, giving tribes the ability to serve their citizens. That money goes to healthcare, homes, public schools, local municipalities and even to help pave roads.” Morago from OIGA added.
In addition to money given through the compact, Tribes often donate additional funds. At Turkey Ford, the Seneca-Cayuga Nation funds the small school’s only afterschool program. When the school needed a new bus, the tribe paid for it. “Our old bus didn’t have air conditioning and didn’t run very well. We are a very rural school and some of our kids ride the bus for over an hour,” teacher Winnie-Vann told me.
In 2018, Cherokee Nation has contributed $5.4 million to 108 school districts in the state from car tags, in addition to the $19 million the tribe contributed to the state budget from casino revenue. Additionally this spring, Cherokee Nation gave a $10,000 annual raise to certified teachers at the tribe’s own Sequoyah High School and Cherokee Immersion school.
Upon signing the pay increase into law Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Bill John Baker stated, “Over the past decade the state of Oklahoma has made drastic budget cuts to public education. At the same time, the responsibilities of teachers continue to increase exponentially… Cherokee Nation is unwavering in its commitment to public schools, students and teachers. This pay increase reaffirms that commitment and, I hope, sends a message to state leaders that they should follow Cherokee Nation’s lead and raise pay for all certified teachers in the state.”
When asked how she feels when people say tribes are not paying their fair share, Sharon Winnie-Vann responds: “Most people don’t know how much our tribes contribute to public education. Both my grandparents went to Indian boarding schools and despite the negativity, we still value education and are trying to make a difference. Our tribes are doing it because the need is there, not for publicity. Without [help from tribes] our schools would be a lot worse.”
Front Row: Cherokee Nation Deputy Chief S. Joe Crittenden, Tribal Council Speaker Joe Byrd, Principal Chief Bill John Baker and Tribal Council Secretary Frankie Hargis. Back Row: Tribal Councilors Buel Anglen and Shawn Crittenden, Sequoyah High School Principal Jolyn Choate, Tribal Councilors E.O. Smith, Keith Austin and Bryan Warner, Secretary of State Chuck Hoskin Jr., Tribal Councilors Dick Lay, Dr. Mike Dobbins and Mike Shambaugh, Tribal Council Deputy Speaker Victoria Vazquez and Tribal Councilors Mary Baker Shaw and David Walkingstick.