Oklahoma teachers consider a strike after state House fails to fund raises

Oklahoma teachers say they have reached their breaking point over pay and school funding and may walk off the job next month.

Galvanized by a growing social media campaign, teachers wanted competitive pay to attract and keep teachers in the state. Teachers were hoping for a $5,000 raise with House Bill 1033, collectively called the Step Up Oklahoma Plan, which looked to increase the tax on tobacco and gas.

However, that bill was voted down in the state House because it didn't get the 75% approval needed to pass, according to Oklahoma Department of Education Superintendent Joy Hofmeister.

"It was soul-crushing," Hofmeister said.

Because of that, and a handful of other failed bills in the last two to three years, teachers are now actively discussing a strike, on the heels of a statewide strike by public teachers in West Virginia.

"What spurred this momentum was so many teachers across the state are at their wit's end," said Teresa Danks, a third-grade teacher in Tulsa who is also the founder of the nonprofit Begging for Education. "No bills have been passed in favor of teacher pay or funding, the frustration and low morale has continued to grow. We're losing teachers like crazy to other states."

One of the authors of HB 1033, Republican Sen. Kim David, did not reply to CNN's request for comment. The legislative assistant for the other author, Republican Rep. Kevin Wallace, said the request for comment was forwarded to the state speaker of the house. The speaker has not replied.

Empty promises?

Oklahoma is ranked 49th in the nation in teacher salaries, according to a 2016 study by the National Education Association. The average elementary school teacher makes $41,150, middle school teachers earn $42,380 and high school teachers make $42,460, according to a 2016 report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The last time teachers were given a raise was 2008, the Oklahoma Education Association says. On top of that, the education budget has been cut by about 28% over the last 10 years, Hofmeister said.

The last teacher strike, which took place in 1990, was over the same issue of teacher raises and education funding, Danks said.

"Nothing positive has happened since," she said, adding that teachers today are "tired of empty promises by their legislators."

Teachers have discussed the idea of beginning the strike during the first week of April, when standardized testing takes place, according to CNN affiliate KTUL.

To make a point on the teacher shortage and lack of funding for education, Danks stood at an intersection last summer to raise money for her classroom. This year, her organization began an online petition that will be sent to Gov. Mary Fallin as a "last resort" to ask for more education funding and raises.

Hofmeister said teacher morale has also been hurt by emergency certifications, which are given out when there aren't enough teachers for students. For example, Hofmeister said, a nurse was given a certification to teach biology. In 2011, she said, 32 certifications were given out. As of the start of this year, she said, over 1,000 were distributed.

"That's over 62,000 school kids that are being taught by someone that isn't certified to teach," Hofmeister said. "So teachers are feeling very frustrated on behalf of the children in their classroom."

 

Uniting the masses

 

Social media has been a driving force unifying angry teachers. One of the most active pages in recent days was "Oklahoma Teacher Walkout -- The Time Is Now!" created by teacher Alberto Morejon. The group has gained more than 30,000 members since its creation last Tuesday.

Education agencies across Oklahoma have also shown their support of teachers. Shawn Hime, executive director of the Oklahoma State School Boards Association, said not giving teachers a raise "rolled out the welcome mat for Texas, Kansas and Arkansas to lure away even more of Oklahoma's talented teachers."

Tulsa Public Schools Superintendent Deborah Gist said school districts across the state are working with the Oklahoma Education Association, a state education advocacy organization, to come up with a solution so a strike can be avoided.

"While we are hoping to avoid the need for a teacher walkout and district shutdown, we stand ready to support those actions should they become necessary," Gist said.

Danks said she and other teachers expect something to happen within the next 30 days.

Hofmeister said the state education department will continue to ask legislators for the $5,000 raise and are still hoping to get one by the end of the fiscal year on June 30.

"A raise has to happen," she said. "An impeding teacher walkout should come as no surprise. They've been walking out of the classroom and out of the state for years."

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