On Monday, April 2, an estimated 30,000 Oklahoma public school teachers converged on the Oklahoma Capitol, coinciding with a walkout that forced the closure of 200 school districts across the state. Protesters swarmed up to the stairs of the building, holding signs reading, “I shouldn’t have to marry a sugar daddy to teach in Oklahoma,” “My two side jobs bought this sign,” and “Certified teachers are an endangered species.” Teachers and students from Edmond Memorial High set up class in front of the Capitol, working on foldable tables and chairs. A group of band directors convened with students to create a spontaneous concert.
The previous Thursday, when threatened with the prospect of a walkout, Oklahoma governor Mary Fallin signed House Bill 1010xx into law, raising taxes on cigarettes, fuel, and hotel lodging in order to fund salary increases for teachers. While the Oklahoma Education Association (OEA) had previously demanded a $10,000 raise for teachers, a $5,000 raise for support staff, and $200 million in education funding, the revenue bill that passed the state legislature offered only fractions of that: a $6000 teacher raise, $1250 support staff raise, and $50 million in funding. “This package does not overcome a shortfall that has caused four-day weeks and overcrowded classrooms that deprive kids of the one-on-one attention they need,” Oklahoma Education Association President Alicia Priest said in a video statement. “We must keep fighting for everything our students deserve.” Teachers and their unions resolved to continue the walkout.
For decades, Oklahoma public schools have been in a mire of financial distress. According to the NEA, the average salary for Oklahoma teachers in 2017 was $45,245, the third lowest in the country. According to the Oklahoma Education Coalition, the state’s education budget had shrunk by 28 percent following the 2008 recession, the steepest decline of any state in the nation, and a fifth of Oklahoma schools had moved to four-day weeks. Furthermore, 17 percent of Oklahoma teachers leave after their first year, causing the number of untrained emergency-certified teachers to increase 35 fold from what it was seven years ago. Catalyzed by the success of the nine-day West Virginia teacher strike a month prior, which increased teacher pay by five percent, the slogan “the time is now” became a rallying point for teachers in Oklahoma.
Educators in other states have also followed West Virginia’s lead in what have been termed “red state rebellions” and launched strikes of their own. The Kentucky teacher walkout, happening concurrently with Oklahoma's, similarly saw thousands of teachers marching on the capitol building—the strike came largely in response to the state government passing a reform bill gutting teacher pensions. Elsewhere, in Arizona, a large group of teachers rallied at the Capitol on March 28, threatening to strike if they do not get a 20 percent pay raise. With growing national attention being directed to underpaid public school teachers, and the looming 2018 midterm elections (36 governors and countless state legislators are up for reelection), teachers have backed state governments into a corner regarding the long-overdue issue of public education spending.
Using tax increases to fund the budget demands of the striking teachers contradicts Oklahoma’s 1992 State Question 640, a referendum that has made it virtually impossible to raise tax revenues. This kind of economic policy is by no means limited to Oklahoma, or even red states: the watershed California Proposition 13, a 1978 deal that drastically lowered property taxes and made it difficult to raise taxes in the future, notoriously tanked funding for (and performance in) California’s public schools. Thus, these labor actions mark less of a “red state rebellion” but rather signal a rejection of bipartisan fiscal policies which have systematically stripped funding for public services. Lily Eskelsen García, president of the National Education Association, when speaking to the New York Times, referred to the strikes as the “civics lesson of our time… the politicians on both sides of the aisle are rubbing the sleep out of their eyes.” Overall, while West Virginia stands as the impetus for teachers moving to strike across the nation, Oklahoma will become the bellwether as to whether or not West Virginia was simply a one-off movement, and whether or not states are willing to overhaul decades of neoliberal fiscal policies.
Despite renewed attention to this wave of teacher activism in the conservative heartland, this is not the first time teachers in Oklahoma have walked out. On April 16, 1990, more than half of Oklahoma’s 36,000 teachers went on strike, closing a quarter of the state’s school districts. Earlier that year, West Virginia teachers had gone on strike as well—again, West Virginia and Oklahoma had two of the three lowest teacher salaries in the nation. The Oklahoma Education Association had organized the walkout after the State Senate killed a bill that would have included $212 million in education funding.
After four days, Oklahoma lawmakers broke a deadlock on House Bill 1017 and passed an emergency clause for $230 million in funding through Congress. A whole host of reforms were implemented through HB1017: maximum class sizes, progressive increases in teacher salaries, and new statewide curriculum standards all were established. The bill also established a formula to balance aid, with lower-income districts receiving more than their higher-income counterparts.
Though the reform remained popular among voters, internal backlash to increased government spending was vehement. Two years after HB1017 and an unsuccessful attempt at repeal, conservative lawmakers chose to pass State Question 640 through state referendum, which mandated three-fourths majority votes in both the House and the Senate, or a public vote, to pass tax increases. As a result, no revenue bills have passed in Oklahoma in the past three decades, forcing educators to face continual spending cuts. Due to this lack of essential funding, it comes as no surprise that state educators have begun to mobilize. However, even if Oklahoma legislators do agree to the demands of the Education Association, the permanence of State Question 640 will render it nearly impossible for reform to be successfully implemented and maintained. A fundamental change to how spending works will have to occur for public education to maintain financially afloat.
The Facebook group “Oklahoma Teacher Walkout” swelled to 75,000 members, parallelling the extensive use of social media by West Virginia teachers. The group was founded not by union representatives but by 25-year-old Alberto Morejon, a third-year history teacher at Stillwater Junior High School, who told Tulsa World he simply wanted “to get the ball rolling.” The group has been the central meeting ground for teachers to discuss information on logistics, share pictures of school conditions, and start polls to gauge teacher opinion—one such poll aggregated data showing how much money teachers wanted for their salaries and support services.
West Virginia’s Facebook group “West Virginia Public Employees United” reached 24,000 members during the strike, and Arizona’s Facebook group featured similar numbers. Richard Ojeda, a West Virginia Senator and champion of its teacher strike, received hundreds of thousands of views as he streamed his opinion on Facebook live. “This strike wouldn’t have happened without the grassroots organization through the private Facebook group,” said Ryan Frankenberry, an organizer with the West Virginia Working Families Party, to Vox. Yet, organizing primarily on Facebook through immensely sized groups, which has and will continue to occur, may lend itself to the spread of misinformation, or the breach of private data. However, as unions have slowly become the victim of anti-union policies, and will only continue to be with the impending Janus v AFSCME Supreme Court case, Facebook has become one of the only ways strikers could organize.
While much of the coverage of the Oklahoma walkout has revolved around its underpaid teachers, the actual demands of the OEA equally seek to remedy other pressing issues in the Oklahoma school system, demanding increased budgets for student supplies and a more fairly compensated school support staff. As school supply budgets have dwindled with decades of spending cuts, teachers have dug deep into their own pockets (on average $600 a year for an Oklahoma teacher) to compensate for extreme austerity measures. At some schools in the state, teachers are barred from printing more than 30 photocopies each week. Images of tattered, decades-old history textbooks litter the Oklahoma Facebook group, and teachers posted comments about how unbearably large their class sizes had become. Moreover, with the cutting of auxiliary programs such as those in the visual and performing arts, teachers continue to fill in these curricular gaps without compensation.
Shawn Sheehan, the 2016 Oklahoma Teacher of the Year, recently left the state to go teach in Texas. On his blog, he wrote, “Do other teachers out there really think we aren’t in this for the students? Who in their right mind teaches in Oklahoma for the money? Of course I’m here for my students, their families, and this community, but I won’t apologize for demanding a livable wage.” Sheehan continued that the problem is systemic in nature, built from decades-long policies which have all but ensured “a lack of funding for education and other core state services.” Even after starting a non-profit that focused on teacher retention and running for the state senate on an education-centered platform, he could not stay in Oklahoma and provide for his family as a teacher. Just like in West Virginia, teachers in Oklahoma often have little choice but to cross into neighboring states, where they can see immediate raises in the range of $10,000-20,000. While stories like Sheehan’s continue to emerge across the country, minor victories like the one in West Virginia and the actions underway in Oklahoma offer up a tangible, realistic, positive vision for the all too often neglected educators in America.
KION YOU B’20 thinks the time is now.