By Ben Felder
The marble floors of the Oklahoma state Capitol pulsated as a mass of teachers clamored for lawmakers to find more money for public schools.
"This is our house," the teachers cried Friday morning, a statement they had made true for five consecutive days.
While the Capitol rattled this week with the sounds of chants, impassioned speeches, school bands and helicopters hovering above, the teacher walkout sent a shock wave across the state, promising to alter public education throughout Oklahoma in a variety of ways.
The threat of the walkout was enough to spur state lawmakers to pass more than $400 million in new taxes last month, funding a $6,100 pay raise for teachers, purchasing textbooks and pumping some additional money into the classroom.
Last week, the Legislature advanced a series of revenue-raising bills that could put more money into school budgets.
The Senate, meeting in a rare Friday session, approved new taxes on third-party internet sales and ball and dice gaming.
"We have seen important steps forward that I don't think would have happened without teachers coming to the Capitol," state schools Superintendent Joy Hofmeister said.
However, teachers said more needed to be done and they vowed to return on Monday, extending the strike into a second week.
"We hope capital gains goes back to the table, and that is what we are really waiting for," said Barbara Bayless, a teacher from Choctaw, referring to the repeal of the capital gains tax exemption, which could generate more than $100 million, according to the Oklahoma Tax Commission.
Fulfilling promise of 1990
Oklahoma teachers last walked off the job in 1990, when a four-day strike resulted in the passage of House Bill 1017. It included a school funding increase and a series of school mandates, including smaller class sizes and the requirement for support staff, such as school nurses and librarians.
"Many of the provisions of House Bill 1017, such as class size limits, librarians, those kinds of things, still exist in law, but there is a moratorium on those being required because of a lack of funding," said David DuVall, executive director of the Oklahoma Education Association, which originally called for the teacher walkout.
"But with additional funding, that moratorium would come off and we can restore those vital positions to our schools."
DuVall said the immediate impact of HB 1017 in the early 1990s was smaller class sizes, additional support staff and improved academic performance.
He believes the current walkout will result in similar gains for Oklahoma schools.
"But this can't just be a one-time event," DuVall said. "We are going to be watching the Legislature this year and every year. We are going to be voting in November to ensure that the progress that is made continues."
While educators hope the walkout has a positive impact for a generation of Oklahoma students, Hofmeister said it would be important to ensure the ongoing time out of school doesn't do significant harm to students.
"The concern that teachers, and school leaders and families would be feeling is real, that our students are not in class learning," Hofmeister said. "That is my primary focus and I know that is on the mind of the teachers who are here."
Hofmeister said school leaders will have to find ways to make up for the lost instruction time, especially as schools prepare for state-mandated tests this month.
The academic performance of students this year will be especially important for the state one year after it launched new long-term goals and changed its proficiency rates.
Test scores from last year will serve as the baseline in tracking progress as part of the new standards.
State education leaders hope that when students take tests in the coming weeks it results in improved scores, especially as an average of 63 percent of Oklahoma students scored below proficient in the 18 state-required tests issued last school year in grades three through eight, and 10th grade.
"I don't know how that is going to end up," Hofmeister said about the walkout's impact on test scores. "What I can tell you is that is the most important focus for me, insuring our students can do their very best."
Some schools are already adding days to the calendar, including Oklahoma City Public Schools, which, so far, has moved the end of the year back by one day.
"If we go past Monday ... we start adding minutes to the end of the day," district spokeswoman Beth Harrison said. "There are broader implications going forward for any more days canceled because it starts to impact instructional time, which starts to impact families."
The Oklahoma Education Association released a poll this week that showed 68 percent of likely voters supported the walkout.
But the closure of schools is taking a toll on parents who are juggling child care, especially those with limited resources or who have children that require special care.
"This is very hurtful to a lot of families," said Candace Constantine, whose three children have been at the Boys & Girls Club in Oklahoma City, one of several sites providing drop-in child care services. "I'm all for the teachers getting a raise, but the thought that there were enough programs for all the kids in Oklahoma City, it's ridiculous."
Parents have participated in the protests at the Capitol, often bringing their children along.
"Her seat is put together with duct tape and one of her teachers has three jobs," Theresa Olds said about her daughter, who attends school in Oklahoma City. "I want her in school, but I want her in a fully-funded school."
While the Legislature approved a $6,100 teacher pay increase last month, educators still launched their walkout, saying it was about more than salaries.
"We are out here for the children, for our future," said Becky Horton, who teaches vocal music at Mustang North Middle School. "It's not always about teacher pay; it's about them first."
A wave of teachers has left the state or the profession in recent years, searching for better pay and improved working conditions.
Those at the Capitol this past week said increased funding could help retain teachers and encourage others to consider the profession.
"It's not just about pay and funding, it's about respect," said James Machell, dean of the College of Education at the University of Central Oklahoma.
Teacher preparation programs across the state have reported a decrease in enrollment. But Machell said the walkout could result in more students choosing to become a teacher.
"Our students have been very energized by all this," said Machell, who first became a teacher in 1974 in Oklahoma City. "I have been astonished by the high level of support from school leaders, school boards and the community."
Choctaw teacher Kari Cruzan came to the Capitol early Friday morning to ensure she had a seat in the viewing gallery when the Senate convened to consider three revenue-raising bills.
She said the walkout not only had the chance to increase school funding and inspire teachers, Cruzan also thought it would be a teaching moment for students.
"For our students, we get to go back and share more of what we've learned about the government process to teach them about it, to empower them to make their voices heard as they grow older," Cruzan said. "That will change the state."
(c)2018 The Oklahoman