Fed Up With Low Pay, Oklahoma Teachers Prepare to Walk Out
Few educators here say they want a statewide teacher strike to happen. And yet there's overwhelming agreement from educators that it's the only way forward.
Union leaders have given the Oklahoma state legislature an April 1 deadline to pass a funding package that includes a $10,000 pay raise over three years for teachers and a $200 million boost to public schools. If that doesn't happen, teachers across the state will walk out of their classrooms, and will not return until they get what they're asking for, union officials pledge.
Oklahoma teachers are among the lowest paid in the country, and many work second jobs to make ends meet and to save for their future.
"I don't like that [a walkout] seems to be the only course of action—I think if there was something else, we would all jump on that, but I just think we all feel at a loss," said Kara Stoltenberg, a high school English teacher in Norman, Okla., who also works at a clothing store to help pay her bills. "It's so disheartening. ... I want to believe the best in people, I want to be optimistic. It just feels like with one thing after another, that hope is being crushed."
Oklahoma's shutdown proposal came on the heels of the nearly two-week-long teacher strike in West Virginia, which concluded when the legislature there passed a bill giving all public employees a 5 percent pay raise. After that stunning victory, teachers in Oklahoma, Kentucky, and Arizona began to ask: "What if we did that here?"
In the Sooner State at least, the walkout seems inevitable—legislative leaders have called a $10,000 teacher pay raise "unrealistic." Last week, a $4,013 across-the-board teacher pay raise passed the state senate, but lawmakers were unable to pass a package of tax hikes to fund the increase.
Then, the speaker of the state house unveiled a six-year teacher pay plan that, when fully implemented, would raise starting teacher salaries from $31,600 to $42,400. Veteran teachers with over 25 years of experience would be paid $60,000—a nearly 50 percent pay raise.
The Professional Oklahoma Educators, an association for school personnel that often clashes with the union, supports the plan. "We need to stop doing short-term fixes," said Ginger Tinney, the group's executive director, in an interview.
But Oklahoma Education Association President Alicia Priest called the plan a "political stunt" in a statement, adding that this would not deter a shutdown.
As school districts brace for an April 2 shutdown, with many pledging to support their teachers, educators across the Oklahoma City region express a complicated mix of emotions: They're unsure about the ramifications of walking out of the classroom. They're reluctant to leave their students. They don't want to disrupt the school year.
But they're also angry about years of legislative inaction. Teachers in Oklahoma haven't received a pay raise in a decade. Multiple pay raise bills have gone before the legislature over the years, but none have passed, in part because Oklahoma law requires a three-fourths majority vote in both chambers to pass a tax increase.
On top of the pay issue, public education in the state has weathered steep budget cuts: Oklahoma ranks first among states in cuts to education funding per student over the past decade, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a think tank in Washington.
"Teacher pay is the tip of the iceberg, but everything has fallen apart," said David Blatt, the executive director of the Oklahoma Policy Institute, a Tulsa-based think tank.
The state's climate has made it difficult to recruit and retain talent, he said. There are about 2,000 emergency certified teachers right now—making up almost 5 percent of the state's 41,150 teachers. Certified educators are leaving in droves to teach in neighboring states where they can make about $15,000 more off the bat.
"I didn't go into teaching because I thought I'd be rich, but I did think I'd be able to support my family or contribute to the family," said Sara Doolittle, a high school English teacher in Norman with 20 years experience.
When she moved from Colorado to Oklahoma eight years ago, Doolittle's teaching salary went from about $67,000 to $35,000. (She now makes $46,754.) After the birth of her son, she and her husband "crunched the numbers and thought, there's no way to make this happen," Doolittle said. Graduate school seemed like the best option, as the couple could use student loans to cover the cost of daycare. Having an advanced degree would also move Doolittle up the pay scale, albeit only slightly.
Now, she is a full-time graduate student working toward her Ph.D. and a part-time research assistant, in addition to teaching full time and parenting her 4-year-old son and stepsons, aged 14, 17, and 19.
"I'm just hanging on and trying to keep myself sane," she said in an evening interview at her home.
For teachers like Doolittle, a walkout is a last-ditch effort to appeal to legislators: Value us and our work.
Trusting the legislature feels "like Charlie Brown and Lucy: I can't kick the football again, but oh my God, I'm kicking the football again. Hopefully this [bill] will pass—but then it just doesn't," Doolittle said. "Finally now I'm like, 'You can't fool us anymore, we know you're not going to do it if we don't make you.' "
That frustration at lawmakers has spread across the state. According to an online survey conducted by the Oklahoma Education Association, nearly 80 percent of respondents support a walkout. A Facebook group titled "Oklahoma Teacher Walkout—The Time Is Now" has nearly 70,000 members. Over 50 school boards have voted to support teachers and close schools April 2.
In Duncan, a small town an hour and a half south of Oklahoma City, more than 200 teachers, education support staff, parents, and students gathered in the high school auditorium last week to hear from union officials and the district superintendent about what that shutdown would look like. They signed bright red commitment cards provided by the OEA, pledging their support for a walkout. Educators snapped selfies to post on social media with the hashtag #TogetherWeAreStronger.
"I did this 30 years ago!" one person exclaimed as the meeting was getting started, referring to the 1990 statewide walkout, which lasted a week and resulted in a pay raise for teachers.
Melonie Hau, the superintendent of the Duncan school district, told the crowd she remembered that walkout as well. A student teacher at the time, Hau picketed at the state capitol.
"We deserve more," she said to giant applause.
But "there are consequences for a work stoppage," Hau said, as the audience grew quiet. The Duncan school district has a few additional days built into its calendar, but if the shutdown lasts longer than that, "it's possible your salary could be impacted," she told teachers.
That prompted questions, which continued for more than 30 minutes. What happens if the legislature tries to negotiate down how much of a raise teachers will get? ($10,000 is the minimum the union will accept, OEA's Priest said to more clapping.) Where will the money for the raises come from? (One avenue would be raising the state's gross production tax on oil and natural gas.) How will school closures affect graduation? (They shouldn't have an impact.)
One parent asked how she and others could support teachers. Brandi Jones, a 5th grade reading teacher at Horace Mann Elementary in Duncan, walked away from the meeting feeling grateful for that community support. She has lived in Duncan for 23 years.
"This is our town," she said afterward. "We stand together."
A 'Heart-Wrenching' Decision
While many left the meeting energized, David Shaw, a geometry and Algebra 2 teacher at Duncan High School, said he felt disheartened at the talk of a shutdown.
"There's a lot to take in," he said. "It's going to be a challenge."
Shaw coaches soccer, and his players are concerned about missing games. And students have been asking if they're still going to have experiences like prom. Shaw doesn't know what to tell them.
The potential financial hit if the walkout stretches out too long concerns him as well. "[I've] got a family to support," he said.
That uncertainty is felt across the state. Tinney, of the Professional Oklahoma Educators, said some of the group's 12,000 members are not in support of a walkout.
"It's a real heart-wrenching thing," she said. "It's a tough decision."
Not all teachers are willing to walk out of their classrooms, even if they support the movement. Will Blair, an elementary special education teacher in Norman, thinks the legislature should better fund education: Some months, his wife makes more as a waitress than he does as a teacher. Still, he doesn't want to walk out.
"I have kids who are nonverbal, kids who cannot go to the bathroom by themselves. ... There aren't a lot of options for child care," he said. "If I'm given the opportunity ... I will still be with my kids during the [shutdown]."
Many teachers share his concerns about leaving students—especially those with difficult home lives or those who are low-income—during a school shutdown.
"Every single teacher is thinking about that," said Stoltenberg, the Norman English teacher. "We just have to remind ourselves of the bigger picture."
Another obstacle: The walkout is (purposefully) scheduled for the day the state's testing window opens. Oklahoma's state superintendent, Joy Hofmeister, has said that window will likely not move, leaving federal funding at stake if students do not complete required testing.
College entrance exams are also scheduled across the state for early April, with Advanced Placement tests not too far behind.
"To lose this time right before the test is just awful, that's when we really ramp it up," said Doolittle, who teaches an AP class. Several of her students have asked if she would meet with them at a public library to review for the test if schools are closed.
"I'm just doing everything I can to put together study packets for them for when we're gone, if we're gone," Doolittle said. "But if I need to meet with them, I will."
School administrators are also grappling with how to best prepare for an uncertain situation. Rick Cobb, the superintendent of the Mid-Del school district in Oklahoma City, said even if the walkout only lasts a day or two, it will mess up the testing schedule. He's not sure how the district will be able to feed its low-income students when schools are closed, and what to do about the district's support employees who are paid hourly.
Even so, he and other superintendents understand the reasoning behind the walkout, and they support it. Hau, Duncan's superintendent, put it this way: "None of us want to see this happen. People have described this as a nuclear option, and who wants that for our kids and our schools and the community?"
But her district is losing teachers to other states or better-paying fields. (One 1st grade teacher quit to work at a Goodyear plant, Hau said. "She can make more money on the line making tires than teaching 1st graders how to read.") There also isn't enough money in the district's budget to pay for new textbooks or supports that students need, she said.
"We're all hurting," Hau said. "We all want more for our kids than we're able to give them right now."
That type of administrative support is rare in labor strikes, said Blatt, of the Oklahoma Policy Institute. Still, teachers wonder whether the support will last if the legislature isn't able to pass a plan quickly.
Although the impending walkout is scary, teachers say they feel a sense of fierce determination. This is their chance, they say, to make a difference for their profession and their students.
"We're not backing down," said Erin Vaughn, an elementary special education resource teacher in Norman. "We hope that we're not out for long, but if we have to, we will stand our ground."
Vol. 37, Issue 24, Pages 1, 21Published in Print: March 21, 2018, as Sick of Low Pay, More Teachers Prepare to Fight