Red State Rebellion: Inside the Oklahoma Teacher Walkout
What started in West Virginia is now rippling across the country, as fed-up teachers in Oklahoma and Kentucky are finding their footing and walking out for pay increases and fully funded schools.
In Kentucky, teachers called in sick or requested substitutes in protest over state lawmakers' passage of a pension reform bill, resulting in the closure of schools in more than 20 counties Friday. The state's educators rallied in Frankfort Monday, marching to the Kentucky state capitol to protest the overhaul of the state's pension system, and to press for additional education funding. The bill moves future teacher hires to a "hybrid" plan consisting of individual retirement accounts and in which the state would keep 15 percent of any investment gains. The bill would also not protect them from future benefit changes.
In Oklahoma, teachers are not backing down despite the state legislature's attempt to prevent their strike by passing a tax increase package providing about $450 million to teachers, school staff and state workers, raising the average teacher's pay about $6,100. Gov. Mary Fallin signed the bill into law last week, making it teachers' first raise since 2007.
However, the legislature also passed a measure repealing a $5-per-night hotel and motel tax that was part of the original education package, reducing the tax package by about $45 million.
About 200 of the state's 584 school districts, including its three largest in Oklahoma City, Tulsa and Edmond, closed Monday in recognition of the walkout. As more than 30,000 teachers, students and supporters flooded the capitol Monday, several school districts in the state announced plans to stay closed Tuesday, with some announcing closures through Friday.
Alicia Priest, president of the Oklahoma Education Association (OEA), the state's largest teachers' union with about 40,000 members, hailed the tax package last week as "historic" and "real progress." However, she was clear that the package would not be enough to satisfy OEA's demands, whose "Together We're Stronger" plan originally asked for a $10,000 raise for teachers over three years, and a $5,000 raise for support staff.
"We are a member-driven organization, and we will be standing side-by-side with our members for as long as they want to walk the capitol steps," Priest, who has taught for 18 years in the state, told Truthout before Monday's walkout. "We will absolutely stay the course. But beyond that, even if they go back into their classrooms, we will be continuing our engagement to make sure that our students aren't forgotten for another 10 years."
Priest emphasized that the tax package bill not only fails to fully meet demands for pay increases for teachers and support staff, but also falls short in meeting teachers' demands to fully fund the state's schools. Those demands include hiring more teachers, lowering class sizes and restoring certain curriculums, including advanced placement courses, world language and fine arts courses, that have been cut over the last decade.
Further, Priest criticized the repeal of the hotel-motel tax, saying, "The legislature wanted everyone to believe they solved this problem while at the same time, failing to actually provide the money to fund their promises." She called upon the legislature to close the revenue gap they left open by repealing the hotel-motel tax, and for the legislature to pass two other bills that would provide the additional revenue teachers are asking for.
"What was done will fund about one textbook per student across the state of Oklahoma. That does not solve the budget crisis. ... We have to make sure that our students are being served appropriately," Priest told Truthout. "We will be pushing to increase funding and to have the legislature pass a path forward that shows our schools, our students, our communities that they are going to invest in public education moving forward so that we are never in this mess again."
The legislature adjoined Monday without addressing education funding gaps. "Just like Oklahoma families, we are only able to do what our budget allows," Gov. Fallin said in response to the walkout Monday. The offices of Oklahoma Senate Majority Leader Greg Treat and Education Committee Chair Sen. Gary Stanislawski did not respond to Truthout's request for comment.
Oklahoma teachers' pay ranks 48th in the country, behind Mississippi and South Dakota, according to 2016 statistics from the National Education Association. Their stagnating wages are the result of fine decades of neglect, according to advocates: Last week's tax increase on cigarettes, fuel, and oil and gas production is the first in a quarter century.
Moreover, teachers' walkout on Monday is the first since 1990, and its scope reflects the many years of underfunding to which Oklahoma's schools have been subjected. The walkout isn't just about educators' low pay, but a broader referendum on the state's school funding.
Teachers and union leaders described how students in the state have faced a revolving door of substitute and "emergency-certified" teachers who bypass normal training requirements and lack the skills necessary to meet the needs of a diverse student population. Teachers have come under increasing strain with larger and larger class sizes, the inability to recruit and retain educators and skyrocketing health insurance rates.
Patti Ferguson-Palmer, president of the Tulsa Classroom Teachers Association and an OEA board member, has taught at Oklahoma schools for 32 years. She told Truthout that, in her initial years as a teacher in Tulsa, she had to juggle a second job to make ends meet as a single parent of two children.
"It made me not as good as a teacher as I could have been. If I'm not getting off from the bookstore until 11 o'clock at night, I'm not preparing fantastic lessons or grading papers," she said. "Also, I wasn't there as I should have been for my own children. I feel like my support of their schoolwork suffered because I was not there making them do their homework."
She echoed the sentiment that the recent tax package is not enough. "It takes us to the 50-yard line but not to the goal post," she said. "We have a very ambitious plan, but we've waited for 20 years, and I just think that we can't give up without getting what we need."
It's not just teachers who feel the strain of their meager wages, but also Oklahoma's students. Chloe Maye is a senior at Bartlesville High School who walked out of class at 8 am on February 23 with nearly 300 other classmates and rallied for 22 minutes on the high school's football field to protest a proposal to cut $22 million in education, and in support of higher salaries for her teachers.
She told Truthout she's had several teachers who have also had two jobs, and sometimes even three. "They already work so hard as a teacher. I mean, it's not an easy job, and anyone who says it obviously hasn't spent a day teaching in a classroom," Maye said. "Oklahoma is in a crisis right now and we need to step up and take a stand. ... Teachers haven't gotten a raise in years and education has been cut and cut, and it's to the absolute bare minimum now," Maye said.
She added that Oklahoma's Board of Education has approved a record number of certificate requests, nearly 2,000, for under-trained emergency-certified teachers, with 12 such teachers in her district alone.
"You oftentimes have to teach yourself a lot, and then you have to go back with your questions and then you have to talk back-and-forth for a while before you can even get anything done, and it's really frustrating," Maye said, referring to emergency-certified teachers. She joined the community rallies in Bartlesville Monday in support of teachers in her district, who walked out.
More than simply pushing for full funding for the state's schools, union leaders are also pushing back against how the state's funding model is bound up with oil and gas production.
"It's been a constant fight to get the legislature to acknowledge that the oil companies will not leave Oklahoma if we increase gross production taxes. They drill where the oil is, and that's a reality," OEA's Priest told Truthout. "Basing an economy on oil and gas can be volatile. We must diversify and look at things that do not hurt our working class and folks in poverty. Doing that means increasing gross production [taxes] and taking away some of the corporate tax breaks that we've given corporations over the years."
Larry Cagle, an English teacher at Edison Preparatory School who has taught for 10 years and is founder of Oklahoma Teachers United, agrees. "We have been at the mercy of oil for too long. ... We have lived a ragged existence trying to please oil, and now that we have wind, a never-ceasing source of energy that we can tax the crap out of ... please somebody dry up those wells."
Moreover, union leaders like Priest and Ferguson-Palmer say they have been in constant communication with union leaders in West Virginia to discuss lessons learned from the nine-day strike in West Virginia that resulted in a 5 percent raise for teachers there.
"All [of a] sudden you're seeing this rebellion in red states. We're used to seeing teachers' strikes in Chicago, Seattle or Los Angeles, but you don't see them in red states like West Virginia and Oklahoma and Kentucky and Arizona. So, I think West Virginia kind of showed us that it can happen, and that it can happen in a very conservative state," Ferguson-Palmer told Truthout.
Teachers in Arizona have also threatened to strike unless they receive a 20 percent raise and additional revenue for schools. On Monday, however, Gov. Doug Ducey indicated that move wasn't likely, raising the stakes for another standoff.
"I think a lot of the reluctance toward a walkout or strike earlier was that we didn't believe the public would be with us, and now the public is with us, and that's such a gift," Ferguson-Palmer says.
But some teachers in the state say that OEA's reluctance was partially due to the union's hesitancy to speak with the independent protest movement early on.
"OEA was slow to get to the protest. ... When it was clear that we were all on the same page, they moved and they got behind us, but the reality was that we had to force them into the discussion," Cagle told Truthout, saying that his organization and other rank-and-file teachers pressured the OEA to move the walkout date to April 2 from April 23.
Priest, however, countered that the OEA has been planning for a walkout for at least two years, "crisscrossing the state in those two years talking to our members, getting them to a point where they're comfortable to leave their classrooms, making sure that our community members and parents understand the funding issues that are going on in the state, and that takes strategic time and planning. So, we've known that this is a big possibility and potentially the only way to move our legislature forward."
While smaller unions in the state, such as the Oklahoma City American Federation of Teachers (AFT), responded more warmly than the OEA to last week's tax package, the vast majority of the state's teachers unions are remaining firm in their demands for more funding.
"The teachers and the parents and the students are universally united across the state, but there are pockets, small pockets of defiance. But of 40,000 teachers, there may be 5,000 whose superintendents cannot seem to get their head around this thing, and those will fall into place, I imagine, as we move beyond day one and day two, just like in West Virginia," Cagle said.
Cagle's organization pressured the AFT to support the walkout, threatening to have its members pull their union dues if the AFT did not release a public statement showing clear support for the strike. Still, he added, teachers in Oklahoma have had to unite, "in spite of our poor union development," pointing out that the state has seen much lower levels of union participation overall than elsewhere in the country.
"We've needed West Virginia to remind us of that, that we cannot let our union differences be the thing that gets in the way," he said.
Rather, Cagle told Truthout, teachers must remain focused on state legislators, and remain true to their demands.
"For them to throw out a last-minute deal thinking we wouldn't look at the details -- shame on them, shame on them. The teachers and the parents had to bully the legislators into understanding it was a gross misunderstanding of the size and scale of this protest."
He added that if legislators do not support the necessary increases in school funding, they'll be up against a formidable opposition in November.
"Teachers have zero political alliance," Cagle said. "We will vote you out."
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