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Oklahoma teachers’ union extends strike with calls for more funding in schools

Some Oklahoma school districts will remain closed on Monday as the state’s largest teachers’ union continues its nearly week-long strike, demanding more school funding. State lawmakers approved adding $40 million to public schools on Friday, but the head of the union said that would not be enough to end the walk-out. Ben Felder, a reporter for The Oklahoman, joins Hari Sreenivasan to discuss.

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  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    The trials of the American education system are often undercover. So tonight, we'll get updates on two different communities and how they're coping with school systems on the brink. In Puerto Rico, education officials announced 283 of the island's schools will close this summer. They blame the post Hurricane Maria economic slump along with a drop in student enrollment because of families leaving Puerto Rico. We'll have more from Puerto Rico in a moment but first to Oklahoma where some of the state's largest school districts will remain closed on Monday. The state's largest teachers union says it will take more than the $40 million approved Friday by lawmakers to end their walkout. Ben Felder's a reporter with The Oklahoman and joins me now from Oklahoma City. All right, we're entering day six now. By the time we get a date, what's the sticking point what's still holding people back from finding and breaking through to a deal?

  • BEN FELDER:

    Yeah. Well, the teacher walkout started last Monday with educators demanding more money for public schools. Prior to the walkout, the state legislature had approved over $400 million in tax increases to fund some education funding but mostly for teacher pay which ranked near the last in the country. About a $60-$100 raise was coming to teachers and lawmakers thought that they had averted the walkout. But educators said that that wasn't enough. It actually wasn't until Friday that we saw the Oklahoma Education Association, which is the state's largest teacher's union put some specific demands on what it would take to end the walkout. There are two demands are for the governor — to veto a bill that removes a hotel motel tax and for the legislature to pass a repeal of the capital gains deduction, which would generate more than $100 million.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    How do those particular things affect a teacher pay or is it textbooks in the classroom the teacher pay issue as seemingly been solved for the time being?

  • BEN FELDER:

    You actually don't hear much talk about teacher pay at the Capitol as tens of thousands of teachers have gathered each day for rallies. What they are saying is that more money will be pumped into the classroom if you look at over the last decade education spending from the state has declined by about 9%,almost 28% when you adjusted for inflation. That's the largest cut in the nation. Many schools say that they can't afford textbooks resources technology. Some schools especially in rural communities have turned to a four day school weeks. There's over 2,000 emergency certified teachers, just five years ago ,there was less than 50. So educators have been saying that there's not enough money from the state going to education. It's been declining over the last 10 years. And they want to see the Legislature Act and putting some substantial funding boost into the education funding stream.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Earlier in the week we had a story on The NewsHour site with some of the tattered textbooks that teachers were posting online. You've been to some of these classrooms. How bad is the situation for those of us in other parts of the country?

  • BEN FELDER:

    In some places it is pretty challenging for teachers. Not just because of the lack of support staff at some schools are unable to afford like counselors and librarians and other support positions like that. But when you go into some schools you do see a lack of technology. You do see tattered textbooks. You know, I talked to a parent this week who said her daughter's textbooks she brought home still have George Bush as the president. Lots of teachers and parents and students that were at the Capitol this week actually brought photos that they put on their signs to show some of the conditions in their schools. And you know, the state just launched a new education standards program with new goals and education leaders say that if they are to meet those new academic standards and progress as a state in their school system that they're going to need more funding and at this point teachers said that they had just had enough.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Finally this is happening in a state that's pretty tax averse.

  • BEN FELDER:

    Yeah that's correct. Know the legislature like I said last week it had passed more than $400 million in taxes. That was a pretty, really was a historic moment for the state. That was the first time that the legislature had passed taxes since the early 90s. It actually takes a three fourths vote in the legislature to pass taxes. And that's been a really high bar. A lot of lawmakers say that they've already done as much as they can and they're not willing to cast another yes vote for more tax increases especially as many of them go back home to some very conservative parts of the state and try to defend that vote as primary has come up in a couple of months.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Ben Felder a reporter with The Oklahoman joining us from Oklahoma City. Thanks so much.

  • BEN FELDER:

    Thank you.

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