Teachers in Oklahoma may be ready to tell policy makers, “Enough”. After a decade of the deepest cuts to public education, a critical moment is quickly approaching. The most recent budget bill passed by the legislature and signed by the Governor, will result in $16M in cuts to public education in the state this year. Teacher pay in the state is the lowest in the nation. While there were glimmers of hope, including a state question to fund teacher raises, and not one, but two budget bills that would have presumably funded raises, these measures all failed, leaving teachers feeling more frustrated with policy makers. Watching the teacher strike in West Virginia might have given many the inspiration to try a state-wide strike themselves.
Oklahoma is a right-to-work state, with seriously weakened unions, including the two major teacher associations, OEA and OFT. Along with weakened unions, workers have fewer rights, benefits, and safety nets. There are differences of opinion about the fates of educators who strike, not against their own school districts, but against the state legislature, as the primary funding source of public education. Here one blog sets out some of the legal issues. Another, also discusses some of the issues that must be considered as teachers consider this step. There are risks for teachers to consider.
Oklahoma teachers did walk out in 1990, in support of a House bill that had stalled, which would provide needed positive reforms, and a funding mechanism for reforms, including limits to class sizes. The resulting attempt to negate the tax hike, SQ 640, was the last time the state of Oklahoma raised taxes substantially. So, this crisis has been a long time in the making. SQ640 requires all tax increases to pass both houses of the legislature by 75% votes, a nearly-impossible threshold.
Social media has been a tool for educators and parents to reach out, share concerns and make plans. Two FaceBook groups have seen memberships skyrocket in just days. One, “Oklahoma Teacher Walkout – The Time is Now,” has grown to nearly 50,000 members between March 1 and March 4. An online petition has also been created.
As of now, there are no specific funding bills before the legislature, but there is a plan set out by the minority party of the House, in partnership with a Republican candidate for Governor. There is another proposal by just the minority House members. Neither has legislation attached at this time. Some leaders of the teacher walkout movement also have plans for recurring funding.
The next weeks will be tense, and pressure on district leaders will intensify to communicate their support of a possible walkout. The legislature seems disinclined to act on increasing school funding, and the only budget bill passed so far this session includes more cuts to all state agencies, including schools.
Aware, as the teachers in West Virginia were, of the fact that over 61% of the state’s students count on the school-provided breakfasts and lunches and child care, there are discussions about how to provide both meals and child care so working parents will not have to take leave to watch their students.