Oklahoma Teachers Follow West Virginia With April Strike Threat

(Bloomberg) -- The Oklahoma Education Association will shut down schools statewide starting April 2 unless the legislature hikes school funding, setting up the second major battle this year between low-paid public school educators and state politicians.

“Teachers and support professionals of Oklahoma are angry and frustrated with the legislature for not doing its job," the union President Alicia Priest said Thursday in an emailed statement. “We have tried several different paths to improve education funding, but none have worked.” Priest said Monday that teachers there have been emboldened by the example of West Virginia, where a nine-day teachers’ strike has secured a 5 percent raise for all state workers.

The union may also have been acknowledging threats by rank-and-file members to engage in a wildcat strike—also emulating West Virginia—if the leadership weren’t sufficiently aggressive.

Teachers in Oklahoma are the nation’s lowest-paid, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data. “Oklahoma teachers are already walking out—across state lines for better pay,” State Senator John Sparks, the Democratic minority leader, said in a statement Tuesday. Greg Treat, Republican majority floor leader,  said the same day that “teachers deserve a pay raise,” and accused Democrats of obstructing efforts to pass one. Democrats contend that Treat’s party has driven the state close to insolvency with tax cuts.

Because April 2 is the date students are slated to take tests required to secure federal funds, planning a strike for that day gives teachers additional leverage, said teacher Alberto Morejon, who started a Facebook group last week that’s focused on discussing a potential walkout. The group has drawn tens of thousands of members. “It puts more pressure on them to get something passed.”

Governor Mary Fallin, a Republican, said in a statement that “there is not a path forward without a reasonable plan for new revenue and funding.” The onus, therefore, is on the legislature, where Republicans and Democrats are fighting over the sincerity of pay hike proposals that require a three-quarters majority to pass. 

Oklahoma House Speaker Charles McCall, a Republican, said he remains “committed to finding a way to increase teacher pay this session” and said that the legislature’s attempts to pass pay-raise bills, including one that would have provided a $5,000 annual increase, have been thwarted by Democrats. Republicans hold a 3-to-1 advantage in the 100-member House.

“There are currently multiple options available to help provide a pay raise without requiring 76 votes and help from House Democrats, including House Bill 2403, which would provide $106 million and is awaiting a hearing in the Senate,” McCall said. “Today, we passed a bill off the House floor that would provide an additional $22 million in revenue, and there are other ideas being discussed that could potentially help us fully fund a substantive pay raise for teachers this session.”

The Republican proposals, Democrats said, are either unfunded or based on regressive taxation of gasoline and tobacco that would hit the state’s poor hardest, forcing Democrats to choose between two traditional parts of their base, teachers and working-class voters. 

Forrest Bennett, a Democratic state representative,  said he favors funding schools by restoring much or all of the $1.5 billion in revenue he said has been lost to Republican income and fossil fuel-production tax cuts—revenue losses his party contends have driven the state to the brink of insolvency.

“The poor and working class in Oklahoma are bearing the brunt of our tax burden in Oklahoma right now, and they simply cannot afford to do that anymore,” he said, adding that this “includes, unfortunately, teachers.”

To contact the author of this story: Josh Eidelson in Washington at jeidelson@bloomberg.net.

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