On Thursday, April 12, Oklahoma teachers ended a walkout that began Monday, April 2 without the protest’s goals having been met. The walkout lasted almost two weeks and caused entire districts to close. The end came when one of the state’s largest teachers’ unions, the Oklahoma Education Association, ended official protests. This does not necessarily mean that other unaffiliated teachers will not continue protesting at the capital. Teachers and their supporters plan to continue putting pressure on legislators to meet their demands.
They were demanding more funding for things like text-books, elective courses, heating and air costs and the ability for some schools to return to a five-day school week from the four-day weeks necessitated by a lack of funding. The protest was also for more substantial raises for themselves, a $10,000 increase rather than the $6,000 approved in Oklahoma Republican Gov. Mary Fallin’s school funding bill, as well as other school staff. This protest followed a similar walkout teachers held in West Virginia in March. That nine-day strike ended with a five percent raise, which made Oklahoma teachers hopeful that their demands may be met as well.
The bill Fallin signed allocates $50 million for schools and raising teacher and staff pay. This number is much lower than education professionals had asked for, so many districts effectively shut down as the statewide walkout began. The teachers used the walkout as a platform to promote two pieces of legislation to move their conditions closer to what they have demanded.
On Friday, April 6, the state Senate approved a bill amendment that would require third-party retailers using platforms like Amazon to collect sales tax or to inform buyers of their owed sales tax. This could mean an additional $20 million each year for education funding. However, teachers claim Oklahoma schools need $200 million over the next three years. The Senate also approved a gambling tax that would be effective long term, though it would not add to education funding this year. Teachers are urging Fallin to sign these into law.
These Senate actions are steps toward the teachers’ goals. However, the Senate also repealed a hotel and motel tax, effectively cutting $43 million from the education funding bill.
Fallin equated the striking teachers to a “teenage kid that wants a better car.” She expressed frustration throughout the duration of the protests, blaming the teachers for not accepting the pared down version of their requests she had passed initially.
In the Oklahoma walkout’s second day, it became a march, with over 100 teachers, parents, students and supporters beginning a 110-mile march from Tulsa to join those protesting at the capital in Oklahoma City. Teachers across the state have been posting photos on social media with the hashtag “#okleg” at the capital with fellow teachers, parents, students and other supporters.
Melinda Parks teaches Advanced Placement World History and Advanced Placement European History and is the senior class staff sponsor at Westmoore High School in Oklahoma City, where she has worked for 17 years. She is currently attending courses at the University of Oklahoma in pursuit of her doctorate in education.
Parks noted that since the first funding crisis for Oklahoma’s public education system about 15 years ago, the cuts have “just never stopped.”
“Some years, the cuts have been tougher than others,” said Parks. “Around 2008, we experienced a particularly bad round of cuts and then again when we had revenue failures the past couple of years. The past 12-18 months, the state’s revenue has increased, so education, as well as other core services, could feasibly benefit. There were several failed plans that were proposed that, while not perfect, would at least have gotten things moving in the right direction again.”
Because those proposed solutions were not ultimately implemented, the cuts continued, having a “terrible impact on morale” and driving many education professionals to leave the state or even to switch careers. Parks explained that Fallin’s $50 million bill is completely insufficient to fix this situation.
“A couple of weeks ago, a bill was passed, but it’s full of longterm problems and doesn’t even get us back to 2008 funding levels,” said Parks. “The inadequacies of this bill led to the walkout.”
Parks’ experience as part of this protest has been encouraging. She has joined other teachers, students and parents engaged in the democratic process in order to have their voices heard and promote a “productive dialogue.”
Parks cited her students and their educational experiences as her ultimate motivations for joining the walkout.
“My reason for walking is that my own students have never been in a fully funded classroom,” she said. “And when I say ‘fully funded,’ I mean by Oklahoma standards and not national standards. There are so many amazing things that we would like to be able to do as a district, but we can only afford absolute necessities—we deal in needs instead of wants. There are fabulous lessons that I would love to present to my students, but I cannot afford the materials to put an activity together. I have great students, and they deserve a better education than they are receiving.”
Photo Credits to Chris Landsberger, The Oklahoman.