Despite Pay Raise, Many Okla. Teachers Will Walk Out. But for How Long?
Despite a teacher pay raise passed by the state legislature, many teachers in Oklahoma are planning to walk out of the classroom on Monday in protest of years of education funding cuts. The question now is, how long will they stay out? And will their districts and the community still support them in their protest?
Before the legislature passed a $6,100 pay raise this week, teachers had been planning a statewide walkout for about a month, fed up with low salaries that put them near the bottom in the nation for compensation. The Oklahoma Education Association had demanded the legislature pass a $10,000 teacher pay raise with a $200 million funding boost to public schools. Teachers had garnered strong community support, with dozens of districts planning to shut down schools indefinitely.
The Oklahoma state legislature requires a three-fourths majority vote in both chambers to pass a tax increase—this package is the first tax increase to pass in the state in nearly three decades. But now that the governor has signed the pay raise into law, districts are unsure if they will remain closed or for how long. Even so, many teachers still say they are planning to walk out of their classrooms, at least on Monday, when there are plans for a rally at the capitol.
"The overwhelming sense I have and that I'm getting from my colleagues is that the raise is not enough, but more importantly, the funding measures do not adequately replace the deep cuts we've been facing for the past 10 years (or more)," said Sara Doolittle, a high school English teacher in Norman, Okla., in an email. "I think the movement has grown and taken on a new focus that is less about our own salaries and more about the overall education funding picture in our state."
The Norman school district will be closed on Monday, after officials surveyed its teachers. "Due to the significant amount of educators who plan to advocate at the state capitol on Monday for adequate funding for public schools, we will be unable to provide a productive, safe, and secure learning environment," the district said in an email to staff.
At least 35 districts, including Oklahoma City, will still close on Monday, according to local news. While some districts have announced they will reopen on Tuesday, others are prepared to remain closed for longer than one day.
In an email to parents, Mustang schools superintendent Sean McDaniel wrote that schools would be closed Monday and Tuesday. McDaniel said he had advocated for only closing schools on Monday to let teachers protest at the capitol, but when he surveyed the district's teachers, he learned they were prepared to stay out on Tuesday as well. He said he would continue to survey teachers next week, and schools would reopen when a significant percentage of teachers agreed to return.
"I was concerned with the passage of the bills that if a walkout occurred anyway, it would gradually erode the incredible community support over time," he wrote. "The support I have seen today from our community has been remarkable."
And the Yukon school district will be closed Monday through Wednesday "to emphasize the need for a long-term commitment supporting our students and our state," according to a letter penned by the superintendent and the local union head.
"At this point in time, even with the new revenue, public education has still not recovered to the 2008 per-pupil funding, while the student population has increased by 60,000 students," the letter said.
The district will evaluate the situation beginning Wednesday to see when it can resume classes.
Members of the Facebook group, "Oklahoma Teacher Walkout—The Time Is Now!" have been calling for teachers to still walk out next week, even beyond one day. Alberto Morejon, the group's organizer, facilitated an anonymous survey for teachers, support staff, and administrators. So far, it has nearly 7,000 responses.
About 83 percent said they plan to walk out despite the bill's passage. But that might hinge on support from administrators—40 percent said they would walk out regardless of district support, while 20 percent said they would not walk out if their districts weren't behind them, and 41 percent said they are unsure what they would do.
Meanwhile, Emily Clark, a 4th grade teacher in the Putnam City school district, said her school closed on Monday, but a decision hasn't been made yet for the rest of the week. Regardless of what the school board decides, she said in an email that she plans to use personal days to go to the capitol all week.
The funding package that was passed was historic, Clark said, adding: "Sadly, it's just not enough. We aren't walking out only for our salary, but also for funding for our schools."
The legislation also included only a small increase for support staff, she pointed out. And the state house has already repealed a lodging tax that was part of the funding package and would have generated nearly $50 million in revenue.
"Teachers are feeling tired and angry. We have been on an emotional roller-coaster for days and weeks," Clark said. "But we will keep fighting!"
Image: Teacher Adrien Gates pickets with other educators on a street corner in Norman, Okla., on March 27. —Sue Ogrocki/AP