Oklahoma's main teachers’ union has called for an end to the nine-day walkout — but many of their rank-and-file members are unhappy with the decision, pointing to holes in the Legislature’s salary and school funding package.
At a press conference, the Oklahoma Education Association announced it wants teachers to return to their classrooms after the Legislature passed bills that raised taxes and increased the state's education funding by $479 million for the next year.
“Because of the members of the Oklahoma Education Association and the overwhelming support of the public, we were able to secure $479 million in education funding for next school year,” Oklahoma Education Association President Alicia Priest said. “The Legislature, however, has fallen well short of its responsibility to Oklahoma’s students.”
That $479 million package includes $354 million for teacher salaries, $55 million for support staff salaries, and $70 million for education funding next year. In year two, an additional $22 million in school funding will come from a “ball and dice” tax from state tribal casinos.
Teachers will be getting an average raise of $6,100 next year, while support staff will get a $1,250 raise. The legislature also passed an “Amazon tax” that would bring in around $20 million in additional funding.
A graphic posted on the Oklahoma Education Association's Facebook page on April 11 touts that the group secured “95 percent of their ask” with the $479 million in funding through various bills passed by the legislature.
But the final budget agreement falls well short of the union’s original goal of a $1.4 billion increase over three years, which was outlined in a handout obtained by VICE News last month. In that handout, the Oklahoma Education Association sought an $812 million increase in the first year alone. That proposal also included a $10,000 raise for teachers over three years, a $5,000 raise for school support personnel and a raise totaling $213 million for all other state employees. The original proposal would also increase education funding by $200 million over three years, with $75 million in the first year.
“I was at a loss for words when I first saw the picture OEA is circulating on Facebook that references our asks to the Oklahoma legislators vs. the funding we have received. It touts that we are 95 percent funded, but this couldn't be further from the truth,” Anna Strubhar, a special education teacher at College Bound Academy in Tulsa, said in an email to VICE News.
“OEA is disgraceful if they accept this as a "win" for the students and educators of Oklahoma,” Strubhar continued.
Commenters on the Oklahoma Education Association’s Facebook had a similar reaction to the news. Those watching the livestream of the union’s press conference offered overwhelmingly negative feedback.
Priest said 70 percent of member respondents to an Oklahoma Education Association poll said they were “unsure that continuing the walkout phase of our campaign will likely aid further achievement” of their goals.
“There comes a time when what you’re doing is not getting the results you seek, there is wisdom in shifting focus,” Priest said.
The Oklahoma Policy Institute, an independent, non-partisan non-profit, says even with the tax increases and funding appropriations, there is still a $12.6 million hole in school and teacher funding next year. It gets worse the following year, when there will be a $115.7 million hole.
Priest stressed that teachers had unfinished business in the Capitol, and would continue to apply pressure on lawmakers.
“We want every school district to send lobby teams to the Capitol next week. As classes resume, we must turn our attention toward election season,” she said.
Strubhar stressed that more work was ahead for Oklahoma's teachers.
“I want to make sure that no matter what OEA says, teachers will continue to show up to the Capitol, because we see past this guise. We will not accept this as a win for our students because they deserve so much more,” Strubhar said.
They'll have their work cut out for them. Former U.S. Senator Tom Coburn, a member of the anti-tax group Oklahoma Taxpayers Unite, is leading the charge to put the state’s first tax increase in 28 years up to a vote of the people. That group has 90 days to collect 41,000 signatures in order to put that veto referendum on the ballot.
Cover image: Education protestors hold up signs a the Capitol in Oklahoma City on Friday, April 6, 2018. Oklahoma is the second state where teachers have gone on strike this year.