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Education rally part party, part protest

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Thousands gather on at the Oklahoma State Capitol for a Teacher's Rally, Monday, March 30, 2015. - GARETT FISBECK
  • Garett Fisbeck
  • Thousands gather on at the Oklahoma State Capitol for a Teacher's Rally, Monday, March 30, 2015.

There was dancing, food trucks and a few selfie sticks. Add in enough homemade signs to give ESPN’s College GameDay a run for its money, and the second annual education rally at the Oklahoma Capitol had a festival-like feel Monday.

But the party changed tones when lawmakers, educators and a few students took the podium to express their frustration with state leaders concerning education funding and academic standards in Oklahoma.

Cries to do away with the A through F school grading system, increase teacher pay and end high-stakes testing were met with large applause from the thousands gathered on the capitol’s south steps.

“Our children shouldn't have to depend on boxtops,” Joy Hofmeister, Oklahoma superintendent of public instruction, said referring to a popular fundraising program in local schools. “I see teachers who are under appreciated and over burdened by a never ending stream of state and federal mandated testing.”

Hofmeister, who was elected last year, was one of just a couple Republicans to take the stage during a rally that was heavily left-leaning. However, Hofmeister may have benefited the most from last year’s rally, which focused a lot of attention on encouraging voters to remove Janet Barresi from office, which they did in the Republican primary, paving the way for Hofmeister.

Thousands gather on at the Oklahoma State Capitol for a Teacher's Rally, Monday, March 30, 2015. - GARETT FISBECK
  • Garett Fisbeck
  • Thousands gather on at the Oklahoma State Capitol for a Teacher's Rally, Monday, March 30, 2015.

“It’s not about Democrats, it’s not about Republicans,” Hofmeister said. “In fact, our children do not have party affiliation.”

Officially called the Brighter Future Rally, the crowd appeared to be smaller than last year’s 25,000. But schools from across the state sent teachers and students, including Oklahoma City Public Schools, which had over 250 staff members present.

“It’s important that Oklahoma City be involved in this rally because decisions are being made [at the state capitol] that directly impact our kids and our classrooms,” OKC superintendent Robert Neu said.

Last year’s rally was not officially endorsed by OKC interim superintendent David Lopez, but Neu had three teachers or staff members from every school attend on Monday. However, classes were not canceled, as they were in other districts.

Thousands gather on at the Oklahoma State Capitol for a Teacher's Rally, Monday, March 30, 2015. - GARETT FISBECK
  • Garett Fisbeck
  • Thousands gather on at the Oklahoma State Capitol for a Teacher's Rally, Monday, March 30, 2015.

“Kids are not political pawns and the legislature needs to put them first,” said Neu, who has been openly critical of state leaders since coming to OKC last year.

Teacher salary was a major theme of the rally, which averages $44,373 in Oklahoma, $10,000 below the national average and below any neighboring state. Hofmeister used her time at the mic to promote her plan to increase teacher salaries by $5,000.

Districts, including Oklahoma City, have regularly complained of a shortage of qualified teachers and say many quality applicants are fleeing for states like Texas due to low wages. Neu said OKC has the second highest starting pay in the metro, but any increases would have to come from the Legislature.

Before and after the rally, teachers spent time inside the Capitol meeting with lawmakers and sharing their opinions on a host of bills, including those related to vouchers, charter school and testing.

The rally also included a few students who addressed the crowd and hundreds more in the audience.

“I definitely see the lack of teachers because I know for our school we lost some teachers ... we need to do something to change that and make people want to teach in Oklahoma,” said Marshall Wallace, a senior at Piedmont High School. “Education is super important. People who have meant the most to me have been teachers in my life.”

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