As a public school third-grade teacher, Teresa Danks has grown accustomed to getting creative when it comes to providing supplies for her classroom.
She hits up yard sales all summer. Weekends are devoted to thrift stores. Almost daily, she scrolls through online sales and secondhand websites.
So when Danks’s husband joked over breakfast last Tuesday about how she could resort to begging – as she was venting her frustration over recent cuts to Oklahoma’s education budget – she didn’t immediately brush him off.
“He’s like, ‘Well, I guess you could make a sign, hit the streets like a panhandler,’” Danks said. He then laughed it off; she didn’t. “I thought, you know, that might just generate a buzz on Facebook to help me get the supplies I need,” she told The Washington Post on Monday.
Danks said she had never panhandled before and wanted to act quickly before she changed her mind. After picking up a poster board from a nearby QuikTrip, she laid it on the hood of her car outside and scrawled a message: “Teacher Needs School Supplies! Anything Helps. Thank You.” At the bottom, she added a smiley face.
As Danks was finishing the poster, a man walked out of the gas station, noticed what she was writing and handed her a $20 bill.
“I want to support you in what you’re doing,” she said he told her. That was just the beginning, she added.
“I told my husband, I made my sign,” Danks said. “Now get me out there quickly before I lose my nerve.”
He dropped her off at a nearby highway overpass, at the end of an exit to a local casino. Danks would later remember being “a nervous wreck” but, within 10 minutes, she had collected $32. One person stopped to hand her a bottle of water. Another wanted to tell her how much her own teachers had meant to her.
“I went from being nervous and awkward to being overwhelmed, not only with the small donations of cash but just the words of encouragement,” Danks said.
Danks left the intersection soon afterward but returned after a local news station wanted her to reenact the panhandling. Even in the 10 minutes it took to film the segment, more drivers stopped. In all, Danks collected $126 that day. While that may not seem like a lot to some people, Danks said any amount helps. She told local outlets she makes $35,000 per year, a figure not out of line with many of her colleagues’ salaries, according to public records.
“We are given pencils and paper, and we are given textbooks … (but) it goes beyond pencils and paper,” she said. Danks estimates she spends about $2,000 of her own money per school year buying materials for her students to go through their project-based curriculum. “It might be paint and glitter, it might be batteries if we’re talking about science projects, or water bottles for the volcanoes. … We’re constantly replenishing, and we’re trying to do these things week after week.”
She added: “All this stuff, it costs money. I want the proper tools to do my job well. I wouldn’t ask somebody to build my house with a spoon.”
Oklahoma already ranks near the bottom among the 50 states when it comes to per-pupil funding, spending about $8,000 per student – only Arizona, Idaho and Utah spend less, according to federal data. And even as the nation has recovered from the Great Recession since 2008, Oklahoma’s education spending has fallen 14 percent, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
Years of tax cuts and falling oil prices have hit this energy state hard, slicing away hundreds of millions of dollars in state revenue and leaving Oklahoma schools among the nation’s most cash-strapped.
The budget crunch is so extreme that schools have had to move beyond traditional cost-cutting measures, like letting class sizes rise and cutting art and foreign-language classes. Now, in nearly 1 in 5 Oklahoma school districts, students are going to class just four days per week – triple the number in 2015 and four times as many as in 2013.
The four-day week is meant to help districts shave off a few dollars that they would otherwise spend on utilities and transportation. But even more important, it’s become a key teacher recruitment tool in a state that, by any measure, offers among the worst pay in the country. The state has not raised teachers’ salaries since 2008, and the average salary now stands at $45,276, far lower than the national average of $58,353, according to the National Education Association, the largest U.S. teachers union.
“We’ve cut so much for so long that the options just are no longer there,” said Deborah Gist, superintendent of Tulsa Public Schools, a district that still holds classes five days a week but plans to merge schools and eliminate more than three dozen teaching positions.
Oklahoma’s neighbors – Texas, Arkansas, New Mexico and Kansas – also pay less than the national average, but they still offer thousands of dollars more per year than the Sooner State. The disparity has led to a hemorrhaging of teachers from Oklahoma, according to local and state education officials. In May, Shawn Sheehan, the 2016 Oklahoma teacher of the year, announced that he was moving to Texas for a better-paying job that would support his family.
“This decision wasn’t an easy one. Not by a long shot,” Sheehan wrote in a blog post later published by The Post. “But at the end of the day, the simple truth is that we can be paid a respectable wage for doing the same job – this job we love very much – by heading out of state.”
Since 1996, Danks has worked at private and public schools in Oklahoma, returning last year to a classroom at an elementary school in the Tulsa Public Schools system. She said teachers are “upset and frustrated” amid continuing cuts to public education in the state – and emphasized that her panhandling was a spur-of-the-moment decision born out of that same frustration.
After the weekend, Danks started a Facebook page called “Begging for Education” that she hopes will bring more attention to education funding needs and problems in the state. Over the weekend, a corresponding GoFundMe account raised more than $3,000. Danks said additional donations will go to help teachers in other classrooms get supplies they need as well.
“I’m shocked and overwhelmed that people are listening to me, but I’m thrilled,” Danks said. “We have teachers every week that picket the (state) capitol and go unseen and unheard. I didn’t necessarily start off doing this for everyone else but I’m definitely doing it for them now.”