A successful teacher walkout in West Virginia has brought the topic of teacher pay to the forefront of public conversation. However, leaders at the Oklahoma Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, says the impending shutdown of Oklahoma schools has been the the works for some time. And it’s happened in Oklahoma before.
In 1990, state lawmakers faced many of the same issues looming over the current legislative session. It was an election year and raising teacher salaries could not be accomplished without raising taxes.
On April 16, 1990, teachers left their classrooms for a strike that lasted four days. Ultimately, lawmakers raised the revenue needed and provided a $6,000 pay raise for all public school teachers in the state.
After the agreement had been reached, he Speaker of the House at the time, Steve Lewis, told a reporter that the bill was dead before teachers marched on the state house.
“It was a simple outpouring of physical demonstration, of commitment and concern. It was just something that you had to see to understand. And just the thought of professional people by the thousands standing out in the rain to try to show their concern and commitment, it made the difference,” Lewis said.
The Oklahoma Education Association has set a April 1 deadline for lawmakers to meet a list of demands, including funding a $10,000 teacher pay raise. OEA President Alicia Priest says teachers will stop showing up to work on April 2 if an agreement is not reached.
eCapitol’s Shawn Ashley says it’s highly unlikely lawmakers will meet the OEA deadline. Nine days after the planned teacher strike is set begin, the filing period for state elected offices opens, lasting three days.
“That means they very well could have to face a plaza full of teachers as they walk into the building and have to explain what they would do about education funding if they were elected,” Ashley said.
Dick Pryor: This is Capitol Insider, your weekly look inside Oklahoma politics and policy. I'm Dick Prior with eCapitol news director Shawn Ashley. Shawn, things are really getting interesting at the Capitol and it's being driven by teachers. The Oklahoma Education Association has listed its demands to prevent a teacher walkout, putting the legislature on notice that if they have not acted on a teacher pay raise and more by April 1, teachers across the state will walk out. This happened recently in West Virginia. It has also happened before in Oklahoma.
Shawn Ashley: What's going on now is very reminiscent of what we saw in 1990 when after several efforts in both regular session and special session to increase funding for common education, lawmakers were faced with a large bill which would provide additional funding for teachers by raising taxes in the state. However, the bill came upon hard times and didn't seem like it was going to pass, and teachers walked out of their classrooms then for four days, ultimately pressuring lawmakers to move forward on the plan.
Pryor: Similar situation in 1990, there was a special session and it took a long time before this could all come together. The Speaker of the House in 1990 was Steve Lewis. Following the vote on House Bill 1017, Speaker Lewis was interviewed about the significance of the four-day teacher walkout.
Reporter: What role do you think the teachers strike played in the passage of the emergency clause today?
Speaker Steve Lewis: There's no question about it, the bill was dead before they got here. They made the difference. It wasn't a strongarm thing or anything like that. It was a simple outpouring of physical demonstration, of commitment and concern. It was just something that you had to see to understand. And just the thought of professional people by the thousands standing out in the rain to try to show their concern and commitment, it made the difference.
Pryor: That was a big event in 1990, the teachers demonstrating at the state Capitol. And that comment is part of a documentary archived on the OEA YouTube channel. Shawn, can the legislature pass the legislation that teachers are demanding by April 1?
Ashley: Probably not. March 15 is the deadline for bills and joint resolutions to be heard in their chamber of origin. Lawmakers have more than 30 bills on each chamber's general order that could be considered. That's a lot of work to do and members have been told that they will be working into the evening during this week. So, it seems unlikely that a brand-new proposal could be brought forward and run through both chambers before that deadline on the fifteenth. The week after that is spring break. Lawmakers moved up the deadline for bills to be heard in their own chambers in order to accommodate spring break. The last week of March is Holy Week in the lead-up to Easter, and traditionally the legislature has taken the Thursday before Easter off. So, it seems highly unlikely that they will have approved anything by the deadline.
Pryor: So timing is tight and what teachers are asking for is well beyond anything that lawmakers have considered, and failed to pass, so far.
Ashley: If you look back over the last 14 months, the largest teacher pay raise proposed was for $5,000. The one being advocated by OEA is $10,000: $6,000 the first year, more than what lawmakers have talked about, and then an additional two [thousand] each of the following years. They also have additional funding for classroom teachers and education in general. They also want to see a state employee pay raise and pay raises for support personnel. The first-year cost of the package is $800 million. That's more than would have been raised by the Step Up plan and any of the other tax proposals that have been put forth by lawmakers themselves over the last 14 months.
Pryor: This is shaping up to be the biggest story at the state Capitol that we've seen for many years. The president of the OEA, Alicia Priest, says schools will stay closed until they get what they are asking for. Now, this being an election year, like 1990 by the way, there are other factors coming into play.
Ashley: Her quote is rather interesting, because on April 11, candidates for office, whether that be governor, or whether that be state representative for the far corners of the state, are going to be coming to the Capitol to file their candidacies for office. That means they very well could have to face a plaza full of teachers as they walk into the building and have to explain what they would do about education funding if they were elected.
Pryor: We will be all over this story and people can follow you on Twitter.
Pryor: Thanks, Shawn.
Ashley: You are very welcome.
Pryor: That's Capitol Insider. Until next time, with Shawn Ashley. I'm Dick Pryor.
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