Oklahoma Teachers End Walkout After Winning Raises and Additional Funding

Oklahoma teachers (above, protesting in the Capitol last week) plan to return to the classroom, though they acknowledge that their walkout fell short of its goals.

Saying it had achieved all that it could with a walkout, Oklahoma’s largest teachers’ union on Thursday called for educators to return to the classroom and to shift their efforts to supporting candidates in the fall elections who favor increased education spending.

At a news conference, Alicia Priest, president of the Oklahoma Education Association, characterized the nine-day walkout as “a victory for teachers,” even as it fell short of its goals.

In a deep-red state that has pursued tax and service cuts for years, teachers won a raise of about $6,000, depending on experience, while members of schools’ support staff will see a raise of $1,250.

But the biggest pieces of legislation passed before the walkout, not during it, and Ms. Priest acknowledged that many of the protesters’ demands for more schools funding would not be met, because, she said, Republicans in the State Senate would not consider additional revenue sources.

“We got here by electing the wrong people to office,” Ms. Priest said. “We have the opportunity to make our voices heard at the ballot box.”

Teachers had initially demanded the repeal of a capital-gains tax exemption, which applies to wealthy individuals. Instead, many of the new taxes will be paid by average Oklahomans.

To fund the measures, as well as some limited new revenues for schools, the Republican-controlled Legislature and Gov. Mary Fallin instituted new or higher taxes on oil and gas production, tobacco, motor fuels, and online sales. The state will also allow ball and dice gambling, which will be taxed.

“The big win happened before the walkout started,” said Brent Bushey, executive director of the Oklahoma Public School Resource Center, which provides administrative services for small school districts. “It is a short-term win, but my focus is how do we turn this into a long-term focus on education.”

Gregg Garn, the dean of the college of education at the University of Oklahoma, said that who won or lost is yet to be determined. “The teachers clearly were able to make some good strides,” he said. “In the long run, if candidates that support education get elected, that’s what will determine who won or lost.”

Some teachers seemed ambivalent about ending the walkout.

“I don’t want to say I agree 100 percent with us stopping this walkout, but I do understand,” said Cory Williams, a teacher at George Washington Carver Middle School in Tulsa, who participated in days of protests at the Capitol. “We are going to get to the point where it is an unstoppable force meets an unmovable object. It is hard to fight against that without changing your tactics.”

The recent wave of teacher protests, which has rocked several conservative states, began this year in West Virginia, where teachers won a $2,000 raise from lawmakers. The outcome of the struggle in Oklahoma was being watched carefully in Kentucky, where some school districts will be closed on Friday as teachers demonstrate in favor of education funding, as well as in Arizona, where a teacher movement calling itself #RedforEd is demanding raises and more money for schools.

[Read more on how teacher walkouts in conservative states are threatening Republican control at the state level.]

In Arizona, Gov. Doug Ducey, under pressure from teachers who have threatened a walkout, announced on Thursday a plan to provide teachers with a raise by 2020, which he said could be accomplished without raising taxes.

In Oklahoma, some rank-and-file educators expressed displeasure on social media that the union was calling off the walkout, and were discussing whether teachers could continue the work stoppage on their own.

Nevertheless, the new taxes in Oklahoma represent a victory for teachers in a state that, over the last decade, has pursued some of the deepest tax and public-service cuts in the nation.

The oil and gas industry, long favored in the state, was among the groups disappointed by the new taxes.

Chad Warmington, president of the Oklahoma Oil & Gas Association, said the industry supported an increase in education funding, but should not have been made to shoulder the burden. He said that because oil and gas prices are volatile, the new production tax was “a raw deal for teachers” and pointed to other areas where taxes could have been raised.

“Oklahoma has eliminated $1 billion in personal income tax,” he said, referring to some estimates of lost state revenue from cuts in recent years. But he added, “I don’t think there’s political will to do a personal income tax hike.”

Allies of the industry may try to introduce a ballot referendum to reverse the increase in production taxes.

As in West Virginia, rank-and-file teachers started the walkout movement by organizing on Facebook, at first without much help from unions. The Oklahoma Education Association gave legislators until late April to provide new revenues or face a walkout, but teachers protested and pushed the union to adopt an April 1 deadline. In Oklahoma, union membership is optional for teachers. Still, the large rallies, marches and lobbying that developed around the walkout would not have been possible without the muscle of state and national labor organizations.

Parents, too, participated in protests. Lanae DeArman of Sulphur, Okla., joined picketing teachers at the Capitol, lobbying her representatives to raise taxes to fund education. She had never been involved in politics before, she said, but the condition of her three children’s schools — aging textbooks, broken furniture — drove her to act.

“It has gone too far,” she said of the state’s tax cuts. “You want to be able to keep what you make, but where’s the line? I myself, personally, would be willing to pay a little more if it meant adequate funding for our schools.”

Ms. DeArman said she planned to vote this year and would be carefully considering candidates’ education platforms.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, which represents educators in Oklahoma City, said the movement could shake up national politics. “A lot of people in these states, including some of our teachers, voted for Trump,” she said. Now, she added, unions hope to spread the message that conservative policies lead to the school budget cuts that teachers and parents have been protesting.

“The not-so-sleeper issue in this next election is public education,” Ms. Weingarten said.

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