It is no secret that Oklahoma teachers earn far less than their counterparts in adjacent states.
The US Bureau of Labor’s statistics showed the average teacher salary in the state is $42,460, which is considered the lowest in the country.
Nearly 80 percent of respondents of an online survey by the Oklahoma Education Association, the state’s teacher’s union, said they would support school closures to force the legislature to act on increased investments in schools, including a teacher pay increase. Yesterday, OEA communications representative Doug Folks released a statement announcing plans to unveil a detailed revenue package and statewide school closure strategy at a press conference Thursday at their Oklahoma City headquarters. “The survey results showed overwhelming support for a statewide shutdown of schools from more than 10,000 educators, parents, students and community members,” said Alicia Priest, the OEA President and a Spanish teacher from Yukon. The survey showed an 80 percent affirmative vote for schools to close down and educators to go to the capitol. Once the Legislature failed to pass a budget that improved education funding or provided for a teacher and support personnel raises in 2017, OEA reported their members and staff met to adopt a legislative agenda for the 2018 session titled Together We’re Stronger.
Together We’re Stronger seeks to give a $10,000 pay raise to Oklahoma teachers over three years, a $5,000 pay raise to support professionals over three years, a cost-of-living adjustment for retirees, and the restoration of funding for education and core government services, the release said.
The plan will reflect OEA’s continued collaboration with school superintendents, school boards, education coalition partners, parents and community members statewide. Bills were filed at the beginning of the 2018 legislative session that included planks of the Together We’re Stronger plan, but the legislature failed to advance most of the legislation by the crucial first committee deadline March 1, according to Folks. “Lawmakers have ignored repeated advocacy efforts by OEA members — including thousands of emails and phone calls to lawmakers, days of action at the Capitol, and community forums across the state,” Priest said. “This has lead to this crucial grassroots movement of educators to take drastic efforts to save public education and ensure students receive a quality education that prepares them for the future.”
Educating the children of Oklahoma is the only focus, said Priest. “Making sure our children have the resources to move on to the next level, whether that is the job market, college, or the military, is the most important thing,” she said. “Right now, we don’t have the funding to do that.” Priest also said there have been no raises for teachers or support staff since the 2007-2008 school year.
According to Priest, many are in agreement with the assertion that Oklahoma students deserve qualified educators, and those educators who are trained in Oklahoma should be compensated. The OEA plans to call for efforts to retain and recruit those teachers and staff, said Priest. “Nobody wants to have a school closure,” Priest said. “The goal of our activities is to put pressure on the legislature to do what’s right.” Education, according to Priest, is the future of economic development in the state. While she said the OEA has not planned a student walk out in conjunction with their activities, Priest said students should express themselves however they feel appropriate in cooperation with their area’s school administrations.
Priest said the OEA and its members, in conjunction with school administrators, is not afraid to close schools and walk the Capitol grounds until education is funded appropriately. She also said there are groups the OEA cannot control on social media that are “about disruption and not a unified voice.”
A group that began with two teachers at Tulsa Public Schools, Oklahoma Teachers United, as grown to over 7,000 strong on social media. The group has garnered the attention of many teachers and community members around the state, as well as teachers and public employees in West Virginia, where a strike has been ongoing for eight days. “We designed a protest movement where we would start with ‘sick-outs,’ then we would progress to student walk-outs,” said Larry Cagle Oklahoma Teachers United leader and Tulsa Public Schools employee said. “Each step of the way, we engaged the media in the Tulsa area to gain additional notoriety.” Little by little, said Cagle, they started seeing a response from other schools across the state. They started networking with other schools where they had known friends and associates. Last week, the group met with their counterparts in the Oklahoma City area and announced a potential strike date. Cagle said this “forced the hands” of superintendents to actually get on board. They don’t see themselves as a union or engaging in negotiations with the state legislators, Cagle said. They simply wanted to accelerate the process because they felt the unions and superintendents were “sitting on their hands.” The group did not want to lose another school year. TPS plans to announce a plan that superintendents across the state can get behind, Cagle said. Details of the plan will be announced via an OEA press conference Thursday. Cable said the role of the group is now transitioning from that of agitator to auditor.
Locally, Ardmore City Schools Superintendent Kim Holland said he has no plans to get involved with a teacher strike. Holland said state statutes don’t allow for a planned strike. “Our community has started to support our teachers,” Holland said. “We plan to work with local legislators to do something about pay raises for all our employees.” Holland also said he thinks striking would do more harm than good, calling it “disrespectful.” While he said he cannot speak for all teachers, Holland said he hopes none of his teachers join the protest.
Oklahoma legislators are at the Capitol today where 56 measures were published, but no resolution or announcement was made regarding teacher salaries. “I certainly understand the frustration teachers have concerning the pay raise issue,” said District 48 State Representative Pat Ownbey. “I’ve been working for ten years to make this a reality. Nonetheless, whether the teachers strike or not, I will continue to work to secure a salary increase for teachers before the end of the legislative session.” Ownbey serves on several committees, including Appropriations and Budget; Children, Youth and Family Services; and Appropriations and Budget for Human Services, of which is he is chair.