Oklahoma Teacher Union Calls for Shifting Attention From Protests to Elections
By Ben Felder
Oklahoma's largest teachers union has called for an end to a statewide walkout, 11 days after it began.
For nearly two weeks, thousands of Oklahoma teachers have flooded the state Capitol to advocate for additional school funding, which had been cut on a per-student basis over the past 10 years.
"We need to face reality," said Alicia Priest, president of the Oklahoma Education Association. "Despite tens of thousands of people filling the Capitol and spilling out onto the grounds of this Capitol for nine (school) days, we have seen no significant legislative movement since last Friday."
Priest said a survey found 77 percent of her members indicated they were doubtful a continuation of the walkout would lead to any more funding gains.
With nearly 40,000 members, the Oklahoma Education Association represents many, but not all of the state's teachers.
While it's possible some teachers may return to the Capitol on Friday, especially because many districts have already declared schools closed for that day, it seems likely most Oklahoma schools will reopen by Monday.
"Unfortunately, because they are the organization that is supposed to be organizing this movement, I think that a lot of people will follow suit with the OEA," said Kambra Reynolds, a second grade teacher from Norman.
Moore Public Schools had already reopened on Thursday, and Putnam City Schools announced they would be back in session on Monday.
Oklahoma City schools had already announced it would remain closed on Friday.
Ed Allen, president of the Oklahoma City American Federation of Teachers, said his members would vote Thursday night on how to proceed.
Thursday's crowd at the Capitol appeared smaller than in previous days, but thousands of teachers filled the inside of the building to capacity, chanting "take a vote" during a morning session of the House, pushing for lawmakers to take up a repeal of the capital gains tax deduction.
The threat of a walkout motivated lawmakers to approve more than $400 million in new education spending, most of it going to teacher pay, which ranks near the bottom nationally.
Teachers went ahead with the walkout and the Senate later approved two funding measures, including a sales tax on third-party internet sales, estimated to raise another $20 million for public schools.
But Senate leadership said that was as far as they were willing to go this year, and the Republican-controlled House continued to say it would not take up a vote on a repeal of the capital gains tax deduction, which could have raised an additional $100 million.
As it became clearer throughout the week that additional revenue-raising measures were unlikely, many teachers said the walkout felt like it was coming to an end without a definitive victory.
One teacher described his feelings by quoting the end of "The Hollow Men" poem, saying, "This is the way the world ends, not with a bang but a whimper."
Some schools had already reopened on Thursday, including Moore Public Schools, the state's fourth-largest school district.
However, several dozen Moore teachers returned to the Capitol to great applause, a sign that not every teacher was ready to end the walkout.
Even after the House adjourned on Thursday and was set to enter its three-day weekend, teachers remained at the Capitol, meeting with any lawmaker whose door was open.
"One of the things that we can take away from the walkout is a lot of the concerns that teachers have on a daily basis are being brought to the Legislature," said Rep. John Paul Jordan, R-Yukon, who was in his office talking to teachers.
Jordan said he didn't see any tax increase measures coming before lawmakers, at least not in the coming days.
"I don't see a bill that could get enough votes," said Jordan, while deflecting to House leadership to provide the ultimate assessment.
As teachers filled the upper floors of the Capitol, a few were in the basement to submit their paperwork to run for state office.
The three-day candidate filing window began on Wednesday and several teachers signed up to run for a state House or Senate seat.
On Thursday, at least four more teachers entered races.
"Being in the classroom for the past 15 years, I have experienced firsthand all of the things that the teachers are complaining about today," said Sherrie Conley, a Republican candidate in House District 20 who is also an educator.
In announcing an end to the walkout, the Oklahoma Education Association said it was now focused on the November elections.
"We must turn our attention toward election season," Priest said. "We must work harder than ever to elect education champions who put students first."
Immediately following the Oklahoma Education Association's call to end the walkout, some teachers said they weren't ready to return to work.
"The movement didn't start with OEA, I'm not sure it's the best decision to stop when OEA says it's over," said Greg Oppel, a teacher from Edmond Memorial High School.
Oppel said some teachers were eager to remain at the Capitol, especially as there is talk the Legislature might consider taxes increase on wind energy production, potentially raising new revenue for schools.
"I think there are some teachers whose goal was to wait for one of those bills before they made a decision on going back," Oppel said.
However, Oppel admitted that if districts call their teachers back it will be hard to stay at the Capitol.
Edmond Public Schools announced shortly after 6 p.m. that classes would resume Friday.
District leaders and school boards have largely supported teachers during the walkout by pre-emptively closing schools.
But with state testing underway and some districts already extending the calendar to make up for lost days, pressure had been mounting for schools to reopen.
"Being at the Capitol has really been like beating your head against a brick wall," said Reynolds, the second-grade teacher from Norman. "But we know who is pro public education and who is not. Even if (the walkout) ends, there's going to be change later this year."
(c)2018 The Oklahoman