Oklahoma Isn’t Working. Can Anyone Fix this Failing American State?
Shelby Eagan moved back to Missouri when she couldn’t make ends meet working in the Oklahoma public school system. Photo by Julie Denesha for The Guardian

Oklahoma Isn’t Working. Can Anyone Fix this Failing American State?


A teacher panhandles on a roadside to buy supplies for her third-grade classroom. Entire school districts resort to four-day school weeks. Nearly one in four children struggle with hunger.

A city overpass crumbles and swarms of earthquakes shake the region – the underground disposal of oil and gas industry wastes have caused the tremors. Wildfires burn out of control: cuts to state forestry services mean that out-of-state firefighting crews must be called in.

A paralyzed and mentally ill veteran is left on the floor of a county jail. Guards watch for days until the prisoner dies. A death row inmate violently convulses on the gurney as prison officials experiment with an untested cocktail for execution.

Do these snapshots of Oklahoma show a failing state?

Added up, the facts evoke a social breakdown across the board. Not only does Oklahoma lead the country in cuts to education, it’s also number one in rates of female incarceration, places second in male incarceration, and also leads in school expulsion rates. One in 12 Oklahomans have a felony conviction.

Rosa Brooks of Georgetown University Law Center wrote in an essay that states begin to fail when the contract between citizens and public institutions breaks down. States “lose control over the means of violence, and cannot create peace or stability for their populations or control their territories. They cannot ensure economic growth or any reasonable distribution of social goods.”

It may be hard to believe, but entry-level employees with a high school diploma at the popular convenience store QuikTrip make more than teachers in Oklahoma.

For four years running, the state has led the nation in tax cuts to education, outpacing second-place Alabama by double digits. Years of tax cuts and budget shortfalls mean that Oklahoma has fallen to 49th in teacher pay. Spending per pupil has dropped by 26.9% since 2008.

Things have become so bad that the Cherokee nation, a tribe systematically cheated out of its land allotments in the creation of the modern state of Oklahoma, recently donated $5m to the state’s education fund.

Lisa Newman, a high school teacher from El Reno, for instance, recounts a history of cutbacks, increases in class sizes, and her stagnant salary. She takes in less than $1,000 a month after all her bills are paid.

Newman, who recently moved back into her parents’ house at age 39, contemplates a declining standard of living while she raises two boys and works about 50 hours a week.

Oklahoma Isn't Working. Can Anyone Fix this Failing American State?

Some schools in Oklahoma are planning to reduce the school week to four days next year as a result of a nearly $1m budget cut. Photo by Reuters Staff/Reuters


Shelby Eagan, Mitchell elementary school’s 2016 teacher of the year, decided she’d had enough after a referendum to raise teacher pay through an increase in state sales tax was defeated in last November’s election.

“I would like to have kids some day,” she says. But that’s unlikely for now: her rent has gone up. She also buys her own supplies for her classroom.

Eagan is originally from Kansas City but she loves Oklahoma. She found her calling teaching in an urban elementary school. She teaches the children “how to tie their shoes, blow their nose, have superhero fights that don’t turn violent”, among other things. All of her students are on free or reduced-fee lunch programs.

After the referendum defeat of SQ 779, Eagan decided to look elsewhere for a better gig. Eagan found a job in the area that would increase her salary by $10,000 right off the bat.

Eagan’s decision to leave was mirrored in May by the 2016 Oklahoma teacher of the year, Shawn Sheehan, who wrote in an op-ed: “Teaching in Oklahoma is a dysfunctional relationship.”

At Oklahoma Policy Institute, a progressive thinktank, the policy analyst Carly Putnam says education is only one part of the state’s dysfunction. Putnam cites the example of a popular support program for developmental disabilities which gave families of limited means resources to take care of their loved ones. It takes roughly 10 years just to get on a waiting list to be considered for the support waiver to help a disabled person, meaning applications filed in 2006 are just now being considered. Many of the disabled patients have died by the time their files are being considered.

One student with a bipolar disorder was nearly arrested and expelled, Eagan says. “No one had the training to deal with his manic or depressive days. One day, another student kicked him in the head during a manic day.”

This triggered Eagan’s student, who punched the offending student. Administrators decided to expel Eagan’s student and charge him with assault. Eagan eventually talked them out of pressing criminal charges, but the experience was a visceral encounter with the school-to-prison pipeline.

The case of Elliot Williams is a stark example of how Oklahoma’s public institutions are failing its citizens. Williams, who had been honorably discharged from the army, had a diagnosed bipolar condition. After he experienced a few nights of insomnia at his parents’ house in Owasso, relatives brought him to a hotel.

Williams threw a soda can in the lobby and walked into a door. Hotel staff called police. An officer who arrived at the scene found Williams “rambling on about God and eating dirt”. The officer and the staff concluded that Williams was suffering from “some kind of mental breakdown”.

They escorted him out of the hotel and called his parents. At some point, while outside the hotel, Williams threatened to kill himself. A cop ordered him to stay seated on a curb. Williams got up and moved towards a police officer, who pepper-sprayed him.


Oklahoma Isn't Working. Can Anyone Fix this Failing American State?

Elliott Williams, surrounded by emergency personnel in his cell. Photo by AP


Police arrested Williams, charging him with obstruction. The small town jail of Owasso wasn’t equipped to deal with a case like Williams’s. Instead of a suitable mental health facility, Williams wound up in Tulsa County jail.

It was Williams’s bad luck to be transferred to a jail that only weeks earlier, federal agents had faulted for “a prevailing attitude of indifference”.

The jail was run by Sheriff Stanley Glanz, who would become infamous as the man who assigned his friend, Robert Bates, an insurance agent with no police training, to a violent crimes task force.

Tulsa County jail was certainly no place for a man with a bipolar condition. And yet, with Williams in the midst of a breakdown, he was tackled and body-slammed to the ground by an officer. Williams had difficulty walking. He was transferred to a holding cell, where he rammed his head against a wall.

Seeing Williams unable to move, the head nurse allegedly told him to “quit fucking faking”. He defecated on himself and officers dragged him to a shower. He still didn’t move. To prove that it was an act, an officer put a small cup of water just outside Williams’s grasp. He never reached it.

For three days, jail officials – guards and medical staff – expressed “concern” about Williams but never called 911 or requested a hospital transfer. He was left in a medical cell, where a video camera recorded him lying there, unable to eat or drink. Five days after he was put in the Tulsa County jail, Williams died of complications from a broken neck and serious dehydration.

Audits and inspections of the Tulsa County jail revealed decades of indifference to sexual abuse, overcrowding and overt racism. From one angle, the Tulsa County jail is par for the course in the American criminal justice system. But from another – and in the opinion of the jury that ultimately sided with Williams by awarding his estate $10.25m – Tulsa had seriously failed.


Oklahoma Isn't Working. Can Anyone Fix this Failing American State?

A pump jack rests idle in a residential lot of a lower-income neighborhood in Oklahoma City. Photo by Brett Deering for the Guardian


Shane Matson is a geologist whose family has been in the Oklahoma oil business for three generations. For Matson, the discovery of new reserves in Oklahoma is a good thing. The “dark outlook about the future of energy” is gone, he says. Cheap oil and gas are now abundant.

Matson fought Obama-era regulations in Osage County, where he was exploring for oil. But his industry’s political influence has now reached untoward extremes, he thinks. Chesapeake Energy, Devon Energy and Continental Resources have lobbied to lower the state’s gross production tax, citing competition from other states. They’ve gotten their way, with Oklahoma’s oil and gas production taxes now significantly below those of its rival Texas.

One of the state’s richest men and its most renowned philanthropist, George Kaiser, has been urging an increase in the gross production tax for years. And there’s reason to believe it’s not necessarily a partisan issue. Until recently, North Dakota had been able to expand its education system with a 6.5% gross production tax.

And despite the tax cuts, the Tulsa-based Newfield Exploration moved most of its staff to Houston.

Industry leaders, not surprisingly, see the issue through an entirely different lens.

Chad Warmington, the president of the Oklahoma Oil & Gas Association, says that about a quarter of the state’s tax revenue comes from oil and gas while the industry employs about 13% of the state’s workforce. Dependence on taxes from oil and gas “has left the state unprepared for inevitable price downturns of a cyclical industry”, Warmington says. The current downturn, then, “has led many to question the state’s management of the tax dollar”.

The Oklahoma Policy Institute calculates that the current regime of tax breaks and refunds costs around half a billion dollars in decreased revenue ever year. That figure, if correct, would cover the current $220m budget gap in education but would still not be enough to make up for the state’s entire budget shortfall.

Of course, many would not recognize their state in this description. One of the most respected bloggers in Tulsa, Michael Bates, said the whole idea of Oklahoma as a failing state was “hysterical and overwrought”.

After all, downtown Tulsa and Oklahoma City are thriving. The cities have been rated by Kiplinger among the “best cities in America to start a business”. Tulsa has rolling hills, parks and delicious barbecue: Tulsa People enumerates the city’s private schools. Affordable housing prices are the envy of the nation and suburban school districts boast gleaming new facilities. And yes, some conservatives think the four-day week is good for “traditional” families, allowing for more time with the kids. For affluent families, the extra day can be spent on college prep or sports. But for middle- and working- class parents, it means lost wages or added expenses for childcare.


Oklahoma Isn't Working. Can Anyone Fix this Failing American State?

Becky Blackmon, 54 and homeless, panhandles with a sign reading “need help” at an intersection in Oklahoma City. Photo by Brett Deering for the Guardian


And for poor families, like those of Eagan’s students, who rely on the free lunch program, it means hunger. Local food banks have to pick up the slack and deliver meals when the kids aren’t in school.

Nearly everyone I talked to for this story – regardless of political affiliation – was startled by the downward spiral of basic social services.

There is something deeply ingrained and unyielding in the state’s conservatism.

When I was in elementary school, I remember seeing my mother struggle with hundreds of thousands of dollars of unpaid medical bills after my dad died of heart disease. She was suddenly a single mother with an incomplete college education, no professional training, and a mountain of debt. We depended on the generosity of friends and family to get by.

I recently asked her why she never went on welfare or food stamps while she worked as a daycare teacher and raised me.

“Welfare is for poor people,” she said. “We weren’t them.”

If you rely on the progressive account, it’s easy to think Red America is dominated by a majority of angry racists lighting a match to liberal democracy. And people in the hipper areas of Tulsa seem to want the city to divorce the state.

But there are signals that some Oklahomans want a change of direction. David Blatt, the executive director of Oklahoma Policy Institute, and someone who’s happy to work with “reasonable” Republicans, points to three referenda widely expected to be voted down that actually won.

Oklahomans voted to reclassify certain drug possession crimes from felonies to misdemeanors, bucking the “law and order” line of the Trump campaign. They also voted to deny public funds to return a Ten Commandments monument to the state capitol, and against a bill to rewrite the state’s constitution that would have made it harder to regulate big agribusiness. All this in a state that gave Trump the third-widest margin of victory in America.

Meanwhile, facing another budget meltdown and a teacher exodus, the state raised cigarette taxes to cover the shortfall only to have the supreme court rule the law unconstitutional.

Oklahoma declared a revenue failure the second year in a row.

“Our situation is dire,” Oklahoma finance director Preston Doerflinger said. “To use a pretty harsh word, our revenues are difficult at best. Maybe they fall into the category of somewhat pathetic.”

Governor Mary Fallin had an answer: prayer. The governor issued an official proclamation making 13 October Oilfield Prayer Day. Christians were to gather in churches and hope for a little divine intervention targeting falling worldwide oil prices. Fallin quickly back-pedalled when it was pointed out that her proclamation only included Christians. “Prayer is good for everyone,” she reasoned.

Prayer Day came and went. The price of oil has barely budged since. Three weeks after Prayer Day, however, the earth shook. A 5.0 magnitude earthquake hit the town of Cushing, a place whose claim to fame is the “Oil Pipeline Crossroads of the World”.

Maybe God had something to say about Oklahoma after all.


Russell Cobb is an associate professor in modern languages and cultural studies at the University of Alberta. He is at work on a book provisionally titled You Dumb Okie: Race, Class, and Lies in Flyover Country.

Save An Endangered Species: Journalists

Russell Cobb is an associate professor in modern languages and cultural studies at the University of Alberta. He is at work on a book provisionally titled You Dumb Okie: Race, Class, and Lies in Flyover Country.

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