Budget cuts to education are mounting. And on Monday, the Oklahoma House moved to reduce funding for state agencies for the current fiscal year.
The state Education Department stands to lose $16.2 million. Combined with higher education and other education agencies, the losses would be nearly $22 million.
Attempts to raise revenue have so far failed, including a penny-on-the-dollar sales tax and a proposal by a coalition of business and civic leaders called Step Up Oklahoma. Many Oklahoma teachers say they are fed up, and there is talk of a strike.
But could it happen?
In 1990, more than half of Oklahoma’s teachers walked out of the classroom, shuttering a quarter of the state’s school districts. The walk-out was resolved when lawmakers pushed through school financing legislation to provide a teacher pay raise and education reforms.
Oklahoma was ranked 48th in average teacher salaries then, and it’s 49th today. So it should come as no surprise that an effort to strike or walk out is mobilizing.
A petition circulating online seeks support of a teacher walkout. The petition was started by Teresa Danks, the Tulsa-area teacher who famously panhandled for money to fund classroom supplies.
The petition says teachers in Oklahoma need a raise of $10,000 to be regionally competitive. “If you support a walkout by teachers to get the point across to our Legislature, sign this petition,” it reads. “Let’s try to send them a warning before it happens!” Nearly 2,800 people had signed the petition as of 5 p.m. Monday, and the number was growing.
Also, Bartlesville Schools Superintendent Chuck McCauley and the district’s school board are talking about closing schools temporarily to place pressure on the Legislature. McCauley is surveying schools across the state to gauge interest in coordinating.
“Our board is serious. We don’t have a plan right now … but we’ll see what our community says,” he said.
On Monday night, the Bartlesville school board planned to talk about the failure of the Step Up Oklahoma during its meeting tonight, and there is significant public interest in the discussion, McCauley said. No action will be taken, he said.
An Oklahoma law prohibits a teacher’s union from striking or threatening to strike “as a means of resolving differences with the board of education.” But if teachers walk out to protest the state Legislature, that would be different, said Doug Folks, a spokesman for the Oklahoma Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union.
Folks said the OEA is not at this time organizing a statewide effort to strike or walk out, even though the union led the charge in 1990.
Oklahoma’s 1990 strike was preceded by one the same year in West Virginia, one of two states with starting salaries lower than Oklahoma’s at the time, according to a report in the New York Times.
Tensions over teacher pay have again been rising in West Virginia, and union leaders on Saturday announced a statewide walkout will start this Thursday, reports the Charleston Gazette-Mail. Teachers there earn an average of $45,622, which is 48th in the nation and slightly higher than Oklahoma’s average of $45,276, according to the National Education Association.
One risk is the potential backlash. The 1990 reforms were funded by income and sales tax increases, which then spurred anti-tax activities that led to placement of State Question 640 on the 1992 ballot. The measure, which passed with 56 percent of the vote, requires a three-fourths majority vote of both legislative chambers, or a vote of the people with majority approval, to approve any tax increase. It’s a near-impossible hurdle and has garnered blame from many circles for the current stalemate at the Legislature.
The Step Up Oklahoma plan calls for rolling back the threshold to 60 percent of votes in the Legislature, but it’s unclear when a vote on the bill will happen and if it will pass. A Facebook group and several lawmakers also have called for repeal of SQ 640.