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As Teacher Strike Lasts a Week, Will Oklahoma Lawmakers End It?

As thousands of teachers converged for another day of protest at the state Capitol on Thursday, Ginger Henley stood along Lincoln Boulevard, eliciting honks from passing motorists who obliged with her banner that read "Honk for funding Oklahoma education."

By Ben Felder and Justin Wingerter

As thousands of teachers converged for another day of protest at the state Capitol on Thursday, Ginger Henley stood along Lincoln Boulevard, eliciting honks from passing motorists who obliged with her banner that read "Honk for funding Oklahoma education."

"We need our legislators to believe that education is important in Oklahoma," said Henley, a literacy teacher at McCord Elementary, located 106 miles north of the Capitol.

The fourth day of a statewide teacher walkout and rally produced more calls for increased public school funding and inaction from state lawmakers.

However, the day ended with the state Senate announcing it would hear three revenue-raising bills on Friday morning, potentially moving the walkout closer to an end and reopening hundreds of schools across the state.

"We think tomorrow will be a very important day," state schools Superintendent Joy Hofmeister said about Friday's session of the Senate. "I think there will be new revenue that we will see out of the Senate tomorrow."

The state Senate, which will convene at 8:30 a.m., is slated to consider the so-called "Amazon tax" that passed the House on Wednesday.

It will also vote on a bill permitting ball and dice gambling, estimated to generate $22 million, along with a bill to increase the hotel and motel tax that was included in last week's massive revenue package, but later removed.

The $5 tax on a hotel stay is projected to raise about $47 million.

"I think all three of those will pass," said Senate Minority Leader John Sparks, D-Norman.

However, earlier on Thursday, Senate Majority Floor Leader Greg Treat said that the Oklahoma Senate will not drastically change education spending, casting uncertainty over the Legislature's ability to end a dayslong teacher strike.

"I don't anticipate any modifications to the education budget going forward," Treat, R-Oklahoma City, told reporters in his office Thursday morning.

The Senate's second-most powerful Republican said he doesn't know what is necessary to end the teacher walkout, which began on Monday.

"I'm not the one who started the walkout, so I'm not the person to ask," he said. "Teachers tell me that they want to see action on our part. We showed action last week with passing nearly half a billion dollars in revenue and funding education at a higher degree than the 2009 high water mark that included stimulus dollars that you've always pointed to in wanting to get back to."

"The budget for education was passed pre-April 1 and that's the budget we intend to keep," he added.

The Senate later announced it would take up the three revenue-raising bills.

"We know that 28 percent cuts over the last 10 years has created a huge hole in the education budget and we know we are not going to be able to get back to that level in year one," said Alicia Priest, president of the Oklahoma Education Association, which is leading the walkout effort.

Priest did not say what specific funding amount would be necessary to end the walkout. But the teachers union has previously asked for an additional $200 million in annual public school funding, with at least $75 million next fiscal year.

Last week, the Legislature approved more than $400 million in new taxes that included a $6,100 teacher pay raise, $33 million for textbooks and $18 million in additional school funding.

On Wednesday, the House approved a third-party internet sales tax that is expected to generate another $20 million for schools, if approved by the Senate and governor.

That adds up to over $70 million in new education spending (not counting the teacher pay raises), with nearly half earmarked for textbooks.

That might be close to what the Oklahoma Education Association would accept.

"We're really close," Priest said.

After the sales tax bill passed the House on Wednesday, House leaders indicated it would be taken up by the Senate the following day. Treat was frustrated by that claim, calling it "misinformation" in a speech on the Senate floor and telling reporters he was "very concerned" it would breed distrust in the Legislature at a time when thousands of people are marching inside and outside the Capitol.

"There's a level of uncertainty that they need to put to rest," Treat said of the teachers' demands. "We'll see if us passing the Amazon (tax) ... and other items assuages those concerns or not. I'm not in their shoes so I don't know."

When asked by a reporter Thursday whether ending the teacher strike is a goal of his, Treat said, "Our goal is to deliver fully on a teacher pay raise. We did that last week and we're going to come through again this week on making sure we replace money we had to take out in order to pass the package."

The Senate took no action Thursday morning, to the frustration of many of the education supporters who had filled the Senate gallery to capacity and quietly looked on.

Outside the Senate chamber, a crowd of teachers chanted "capital gains" in a show of support for eliminating the capital gains tax exemption, which could generate more than $100 million, according to the Oklahoma Tax Commission.

In the morning, several ministers representing different Christian denominations as well as other faith traditions such as Islam and Judaism, led prayers and offered words of encouragement to teachers on the fourth-floor rotunda for an event called "Clergy Day of Prayer and Action for Public Education."

"We are united by one central theme and that is that we have children in dire need of our help," said The Rev. Clark Frailey, senior pastor of Coffee Creek Church in Edmond.

As teachers filled each floor of the Capitol and others waited to enter in lines that snaked around the building, thousands more gathered outside in a festival-like atmosphere that included marching bands, homemade signs and 5-foot-tall letters that included the shape of a heart and the word "teachers."

Throughout the day, speakers took the stage in front of the south steps to share stories of classroom challenges and the need for more state funding.

A mix of party and protest music pulsed through giant speakers that flanked the stage.

"We are really trying to keep it upbeat," said Nick Singer, a field director for the ACLU, who was playing the part of DJ at the rally. "The work is really hard inside (the Capitol) and there are a lot of tense moments, so people come out here to decompress and have a good time."

Teachers who had gathered from across Oklahoma said they would return on Friday and many schools announced they would remain closed.

"I feel like my students are more important than anything that I have right now," said Steffi Patton, a teacher from Piedmont. "I think my students are more important than my raise and I'll be out here for as long as it takes.

Thursday matched the length of Oklahoma's last teacher walkout, which took place in 1990 over the course of four days in April.

The 1990 walkout resulted in an increase in funding and reforms that many teachers say have been ignored over the last several years.

The current showdown between teachers and lawmakers continues Friday, with possible legislative action that could bring some clarity to what it might take for teachers to return to class.

"I see this as a time of increased, intense, passionate focus on public education and students," said Hofmeister, who posed for pictures with teachers between her meetings with lawmakers. "I don't see a showdown, what I see is an expression of engagement and advocacy.

"This is democracy at work."

(c)2018 The Oklahoman

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.
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