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Teachers in Oklahoma protest ahead of a planned walkout Monday. Photo courtesy of KELLY BURLEY / KOSU

Why Oklahoma teachers are planning to walk out Monday

Almost five years ago, history teacher Amy Presley took a 50-percent pay cut to move to Oklahoma from Missouri. Her husband had gotten a job, and she was part of the package deal.

Oklahoma lawmakers have long touted the low cost of living, Presley said, but it does not come close to balancing out the state’s low teacher pay, which ranked 50th in the nation until this week.

On Wednesday, the Oklahoma legislature passed their first tax hike in almost 30 years to fund a pay increase for teachers who hadn’t seen a raise in a decade.

The bill includes an average $6,000 pay raise for educators and $50 million dollars in education funding, as well as to avert a teacher walkout. A $1,250 increase for support staff and a raise for state employees was also part of the bill.

Republican Governor Mary Fallin signed the bill into law on Thursday.

But while the teacher’s union and non-union groups say the bill is a step in the right direction, it isn’t enough. They plan to walkout on Monday, April 2, unless the legislature passes a new bill before then.

“There is still work to do to get this Legislature to invest more in our classroom. And that work will continue Monday when educators descend on the Capitol,” said Alicia Priest, head of the Oklahoma Education Association (OEA) in video comments on its Facebook page.

The OEA’s plan calls for a $10,000 raise for teachers, a $5,000 increase for support staff over three years, $200 million in education funding and a raise for state employees.

Since the bill passed, several school districts across the state have cancelled classes on Monday in a show of support for their teachers who plan to walk out. Other districts have changed their position in light of the bill passing and said they will hold school.

“We will still march. It’s everybody or nobody,” said Olivia Pullins Goodwin of Skiatook Public Schools. “They’re leaving our support staff out, and that’s not okay,” she said, adding that her district and school board stand behind its teachers.

Amanda Hoppe, a pre-K assistant at Perkins-Tryon Elementary School, said her district and school board decided not to close schools on Monday after the bill passed. She has a lot to talk to her family about before they decide whether or not she will walk out.

“If we don’t walk, it tells the country and our kids that it was just about a pay raise,” Hoppe said, who is finishing her teaching degree. She sees first-hand what teachers do and says there is no way she couldn’t support them.

At the same time, Hoppe says the thought of walking out as support staff is terrifying, because she could be more easily replaced than a teacher. The state gave about two-fifths of what the OEA’s plan for support staff put forth. A combination of a bad flu season, large class size and low pay has left her school without any subs, resulting in support staff often subbing classes, she said.

“I’m lucky enough to have a husband that works his tail off to provide for my family,” said Hoppe, adding that her paycheck covers daycare for her youngest child and not much more. “I couldn’t imagine if it were something we had to actually rely on.”

Amanda Hoppe, a pre-K assistant teacher, with her two sons earlier this week in Perkins, Oklahoma. Photo courtesy of Amanda Hoppe

Dissatisfaction with teacher pay has been brewing since the time when Presley moved to the state. It seemed like patience had worn out with the last round of budget cuts, a successful teacher’s strike in West Virginia and educators on social media becoming more vocal, she said.

One of those teachers, Alberto Morejon, a 24-year-old history teacher at Stillwater Junior High School and non-union member, created a Facebook page calling for a teacher walkout on April 2 if the $10,000 salary increase wasn’t met by April 1. Within a couple of days, the website blew up with union and non-union teachers. It currently has more than 72,000 followers.

One of Morejon’s colleagues is a 58-year-old teacher who mows a total of 27 lawns. He takes off right after school with the lawn mower in the back of his pickup, Morejon says, so he can help pay for his daughter’s college.

Many teachers work second and third jobs and qualify for food stamps. Morejon gave an example of a teacher with 25 years experience whose student-teacher recently left for a neighboring state and now makes more than she does. Last year, Oklahoma’s 2016 Teacher of the Year left for Texas.

“Teachers are kind of out of patience,” Presley said.

Oklahoma is a Right to Work state, which means teachers can’t be made to join a labor union or technically go on strike. However, many school districts across the state, aware of how dire the situation has become, have said they will issue a school closure on April 2 unless the state legislature passes a reasonable salary increase.

If school is closed on Monday, “it’s like a bad weather day,” said union president Alicia Priest of the Oklahoma Education Association, part of the National Education Association.

Over the last decade, the state of Oklahoma has cut hundreds of millions of dollars in education, Priest said. As a result of the low wages, the state loses an average of 200 teachers a month from the profession or to other states.

“They have 700,000 reasons” to make the larger pay increase happen, said Priest. “That’s how many public school students we have in the state of Oklahoma.”

A total of 91 out of 512 school districts in the state have gone down to a four-day school week due to budget cuts, according to Priest.

Teachers protesting for raises in Oklahoma this week say they are walking out on Monday. Photo courtesy of Olivia Pullins Goodwin

The House bill that fell short of the union’s proposal provided all teachers with an average $6,000 increase, paid for by a 5 percent gross production tax on oil and gas, a fuel and diesel tax, a cigarette tax and a $5 hotel room tax. However, lawmakers ditched the hotel tax on Wednesday, cutting the expected revenue by an estimated $47 million.

The vote marked the first tax increase in Oklahoma since 1990, when voters passed a referendum saying that no tax increases can take place without a super-majority of 75 percent in both houses.

It’s a rule that Tulsa Schools Superintendent Deborah Gist said is largely responsible for years of failed efforts to fund a salary increase for teachers. Gist has been working with the OEA on the pay increase.

“It is horrific what we are doing as a state not only to our teachers,” she said, “but because of the way we treat our teachers, we’re doing it to our students and to our state as a whole.”

To a staggering degree, Oklahoma has cut more of the education budget on a per pupil basis in the last 10 years than any other state in the country, Gist said.

One of the reasons Oklahoma has made education cuts over the last several years goes back to the moment Oklahomans voted for the tax increase super-majority in the first place, according to State Representative Pat Ownbey.

In 1990, the Oklahoma legislature passed House Bill 1017 in order to raise teachers’ salaries and get them back into the classroom following another funding crisis. The bill was also the largest tax increase in state history at the time, said Ownbey.

As a result, a group of dissatisfied voters got enough support to pass a referendum in 1992, he said, that stated Oklahoma could not raise taxes without a super-majority consisting of three-quarters of the state legislature or without a vote of the people.

Another issue that arose in the late 1990s was the introduction of horizontal oil drilling, or fracking, Ownbey recalled, who was not then in office. The oil industry lobbied to cut the gross production tax (GPT) from 7 percent to 1 percent, given the experimental and expensive nature of fracking at the time. After a couple of years, the tax went to 2 percent. It was meant to go back to 7 percent but interest groups kept pushing to renew the tax at 2 percent, and were successful.

At the time, Ownbey didn’t look at it as an education issue, something he later said he regretted. But as time passed, and fracking became the norm in the state, the tax rate didn’t change. “It felt like we were giving away our minerals in our state,” Ownbey said, not to mention that Oklahoma is collecting less than half the average in oil and gas taxes as the top 10 energy producing states.

Flash forward 20 years, and another education crisis looms, as Oklahoma teacher salaries hit rock bottom in the nation.

“I’m a businessman. I can’t imagine letting my employees go 10 years without a raise,” said Ownbey, but says the union’s plan is “impossible.”

Ownbey began to work with the Professional Oklahoma Educators (POE), a non-union, non-partisan education group to come up with a plan that could get the necessary super-majority. The bill that was passed takes into account the POE’s proposal.

And with its passage, “the walkout would be a waste of time in my view,” Ownbey said before the vote.

Proposals to raise teachers’ salaries have continued to fail over the years because educators have demanded too much money that the state does not have, according to Ginger Tinney, POE’s executive director and a long-time advocate of Right to Work. The group celebrated the passage of the bill, marking it as an historic victory on their Facebook page.

Many of POE’s teachers have told Tinney that they don’t want to walk out, but that the majority of teachers in their schools do, putting them in a tough position. She reminds them that walking out is solely voluntary and no teacher can be made to do so. For those POE members who instead support the union’s plan, Tinney said POE would stand behind them, but also instructs them to get any plans for a walkout in writing.

Non-union grassroots teacher groups have stood in stronger support of the union’s plan, Morejon said, who plans to walk out on Monday.

“I could drive three hours south right now and get a job north of Dallas and make $19,000 more than I make right now,” said Morejon, a third-year teacher.

History teacher Alberto Morejon protesting for a raise in Stillwater, Oklahoma, ahead of Monday’s walkout. Photo courtesy of Alberto Morejon

Morejon, a Republican, said while he doesn’t want to see Democrats take control of the state legislature, he’s come to believe more and more that there needs to be a better balance between the parties. As a college student, Morejon said he had heard about Oklahoma’s education problems but said, “You actually don’t realize them, or they don’t really touch at your heart, until you get in the classroom.”

Since Wednesday night’s vote, many of the comments on his Facebook group page as well as on OEA’s site have been in support of a walkout.

Preparations for the protest include working with regional food banks and churches to figure out ways to provide students with breakfast and lunch and child care.

Larry Cagle, a high school English teacher at Edison Preparatory School in Tulsa, says he plans to walk out on Monday. Cagle also started a Facebook page in early March supporting a walkout. Since Wednesday’s vote, the page reads #StillWalking.

Cagle has seen teachers leave after only a year at his school, one of the top-ranked in the state. He notes the massive spike in emergency certifications — at more than 1,900 this year — and says he fears that classrooms are becoming less safe for students.

One teacher at his school resigned this year after throwing a desk. A substitute teacher at another school was arrested for exchanging nude pictures with a student.

Although Cagle has been frustrated with what he sees as the slow pace of change, he says the problem is much bigger than teacher salaries in Oklahoma. He’s worried that his state may no longer believe in public education.

“The reality is that conservatives like school vouchers and private schools and charter schools,” Cagle said.

“They want to stop public education and turn it into a business, just like they do with the prisons and health care,” he said. “The best way to confirm that you have a broken system that needs to be repaired is to not fund it and let it fall apart,” he said.

At an OEA event last week, Hope Davis, a hearing impaired student, described her experience having two emergency certified teachers and another class that has new subs everyday. Davis’s geometry teacher left during the school year, forcing her to take a geometry class online.

No one at the school could help her learn geometry and address her hearing impairment, Priest said. “Our legislature and governor have made choices to cut our way into what I call disparity.”