In a controversial move, the Oklahoma Education Association, the largest teacher’s union in the state, announced that they were ending the state-wide walkouts that began on April 2nd. The decision, which came nine days into the work-stoppage, was met with relief and anger by legislators and educators respectively.
The OEA initially asked for a $10,000 raise for all teachers staggered over the course of three years as well as a $5,000 raise for all support staff. They also sought a $1.4 billion increase in general education funding over the period of three years, with the lion’s share of that funding increase coming in the 2019 fiscal year in the form of $812 million.
This funding was in part a “restoration” of the cuts that have drained education in the state over the past decade. The pressure of such cuts can be seen throughout the state, with teachers rapidly leaving Oklahoma in search of better paying work, students learning out of decades-old textbooks, and class-sizes increasing significantly. In fact, some schools are only open four days a week in the state because the district doesn’t have enough money to stay open.
As talks concluded, teachers received an average raise of $6,100 that will be added to their paychecks in the next fiscal year. School support staff will get a raise of just more than $1,200. Legislators also approved a $479 million funding increase for the next year, which includes teacher raises, salaries, and $70 million for school funding. For the fiscal year of 2020, legislators approved a $22 million funding infusion that would come from taxes on casinos in the state. In comparison, the OEA called for $75 million in funding cut restorations alone for the fiscal year of 2020.
All in all, the full demands of the OEA were not met, but the decision to end the walkout came as the OEA believed that there would be no more progress made by keeping schools closed.
Plenty of educators did not agree with the decision. One middle school teacher referred to the decision as a “cop-out.” The standstill between legislators and educators alludes to a larger problem in the state of Oklahoma. The state requires a 75 percent margin for all votes in the legislature to increase revenue (i.e. taxes). This is one of the highest standards to raise taxes in the United States. The same is not true, however, for cutting taxes in the state, which has occurred steadily over the past decade to encourage oil and gas drilling.
Although the walk-out is over, the organizing will continue. The OEA has called for educators to continue showing up on Capitol Hill, even as schools open. At the press conference where they announced their decision, OEA president Alicia Priest said that “The legislature has fallen well short of its responsibility to Oklahoma’s students.” She also called for each school district to send a team of lobbyists to Capitol Hill to keep working to get the funding that the OEA originally called for. The action points to a larger battle on election day, where teachers could start looking and supporting politicians with their education interests at heart.
It should be no surprise that the protests and walkouts that have swept the nation over the past few weeks have occurred exclusively in red states. After all, Oklahoma, West Virginia, Kentucky and Arizona have all suffered under decades of tax cuts, growing classroom sizes, and stagnating wages.
And while Oklahoma educators will continue to organize, so will educators across the country. Arizona Governor Doug Ducey, bowing under the pressure of a near-imminent educators strike in his state, announced his plan to give teachers a 20 percent raise by 2020. Kentucky teachers are swarming the state’s capitol today to demand a reversal of Kentucky’s contested pension legislation for teachers.