OKLAHOMA CITY — Declaring victory, the state’s largest teacher’s union announced the state’s nine-day educator walkout is over.
Oklahoma Education Association President Alicia Priest said educators were able to secure $479 million in funding for the upcoming school year, and will now shift their focus to the upcoming election season and sending smaller delegations of teachers to continue to advocate at the Capitol.
“Our members are saying they’re ready to go back to their classrooms, and we will continue supporting them as they come lobby on a daily basis, and we will support their back-home activities as well,” Priest said.
More than 500,000 students have been affected by the school closures. Priest said the decision to re-open would be made on a local level.
Priest was asked how much of a funding victory teachers could claim, given that the Legislature passed most of the revenue and a teacher raise package prior to the walkout. Even before districts closed and teachers headed to the Capitol to advocate April 2, lawmakers raised more than $447 million in taxes in order to fund permanent, average $6,100 raises for all classroom teachers. They also increased pay for support staff and public employees and agreed to increase classroom spending by about $50 million.
Priest said educators were able to garner some additional funding with the passage of a new tax on online sellers expected to generate $19.6 million and legalizing ball and dice games in casinos, which will generate about $22 million a year. None of the gaming revenue is available to appropriate for the upcoming school year.
“We absolutely have a victory for teachers,” Priest said. “Half a billion dollars is a victory, but the Legislature has fallen short on funding the promise for the future of education in our state, and that’s why we shift our focus to a movement that is beyond just in this building at this very moment.”
While the Oklahoma Education Association said the walkout was over for it’s members, it’s not known if all the teachers will follow the union’s lead.
Many educators have said the Oklahoma Education Association doesn’t speak for them, said Senate Majority Floor Leader Greg Treat, R-Oklahoma City, in a meeting with media earlier in the day.
“I want a very clear and consistent message and (to) know who to talk to,” he said. “It’s hard to negotiate with 40,000 people, and so we have not gotten clear direction from the teachers or the organizations that represent them of who actually makes the final decision.”
That Oklahoma Education Association doesn’t have a strong presence in Oklahoma City Public Schools, said Jamie Hernando, a special education pre-K teacher, earlier in the day. She’s a member of the American Federation of Teachers.
“I have been a little frustrated just because they (the Oklahoma Education Assocation) have stepped out there and this has been a teacher movement,” she said. “It’s not supposed to be a union movement, so it’s hard that they have kind of taken over that and (are) speaking for us when that’s not necessarily what we want to say and what we’re here for.”
Hernando said she’s not a money person, she just wants her schoolchildren, who live in a very poor urban area, to receive as much funding as they can.
Teachers may be in an even worse position than they were before the walkout started April 2 because lawmakers have since eliminated a $5 per night hotel/motel occupancy tax that was supposed to generate $48 million for education, she said.
“We’re no different than we were the day we walked out, honestly, right now,” Hernando said.
Earlier Thursday, many teachers who descended on the Capitol said they were frustrated that lawmakers hadn’t yet done their job and found a way to provide adequate funds for the classroom.
“The Legislature still hasn’t done their job, and some of those guys, they’re already gone for the weekend,” said Dina Kincaid a Norman North High School Latin teacher. “Some of them haven’t shown up at all or they hide. I think they need to pay attention to the fact that we are their constituents. They’re laughing at us after we leave in the afternoon.
“They don’t respect us at all."
Lawmakers, meanwhile, have complained the demands became increasingly muddled and varied as the walkout lengthened.
“I’ve joked that we had a Festivus meeting in here two days ago because it was truly an airing of grievances between myself and between (the Oklahoma Education Association),” Treat said. He was referencing the holiday made famous by an episode of television sitcom "Seinfeld."
“We don’t even know where they are, and I don’t think you know where they are, (and) I don’t think your members know where they are,” Treat said.
Treat said that the state’s largest teacher’s union was continually moving their end goals. Less than five minutes after lawmakers met two of the union’s most pressing asks — the new tax of online sellers and legalizing ball and dice games in casinos — last week, the union announced it wasn’t enough, Treat said.
Under the plan passed by the Legislature prior to April 2, Oklahoma would move from last to second in the regional average teacher pay, education officials said. The average Oklahoma teacher made $44,921 last year, according to the state Department of Education. The regional average was $48,450.
More experienced classroom teachers would receive an even larger raise based on years of service and certification. For example, certified teachers with 25 years experience could see their pay increase by nearly $8,000 to top out at $51,232, according to a budget analysis.
The measure is funded by a tax package that includes increases to the gross production tax charged to oil and gas drillers, the state’s gasoline and the diesel taxes and cigarettes.
Earlier Thursday, public employees said they wouldn’t walk anymore because lawmakers were solely focused on education priorities, not all core services. Previously, they had walked out in solidarity with educators.
“As thousands of teachers, parents, students and business leaders descended on the Capitol to rally, march and meet with legislators, educators were reminded that they are not alone,” said Pam Deering, executive director for the Cooperative Council for Oklahoma School Administration, in a statement. “They achieved what no one has been able to achieve in over a decade: an increase in funding for schools and a pay raise for teachers and support staff.”
In a statement, Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs President Jonathan Small said he’s “glad” educators received a pay increase.
“Now that teachers have received a pay raise, we must focus on reforms that will empower teachers and local school districts to use funds to best meet the needs of our students,” he said.
Stecklein covers the Oklahoma Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.