The Oklahoma teacher walkout has ended after nine days, the state’s largest teachers union said, but teachers across the state pledged to continue fighting for more school funding and higher pay.
“We have created a movement, and there’s no stopping us now,” Oklahoma Education Association President Alicia Priest said Thursday. “This fight is not over just because the school bell rings once more and our members walk back into schools.”
The union decided to end the walkout Thursday after it became clear that Senate Republicans in the Legislature “won’t budge an inch on any more revenue for public education” after days of negotiations with lawmakers in both chambers, Priest said.
“We need to face reality,” Priest told reporters. “Despite tens of thousands of people filling the Capitol and spilling out onto the grounds of this Capitol for nine days, we have seen no significant legislative movement since last Friday.”
The walkout ends with roughly the same amount of extra education spending secured before the nine-day action began: about $479 million for teacher and support staff salaries and school needs for the upcoming fiscal year.
That raises public school spending to $2.9 billion next school year, up from $2.4 billion this year.
‘Time to go back to school’
Priest said Oklahoma teachers had secured a victory even though the most significant gains were achieved before the walkout began April 2. Shortly before then, Gov. Mary Fallin signed a bill raising spending on teacher and support staff pay by $405.5 million.
That resulted, the Oklahoma Education Association said, with average raises of $6,100 for teachers and $1,250 for support staff. The union called those gains a “truly historic moment” but said they didn’t go far enough. It wanted the teachers’ raises to average $10,000.
The legislation also raised other education funding – money for textbooks and the state-aid formula, and for flex health care benefits – over the next fiscal year by more than $70 million. The teachers’ union also wanted those numbers to be higher.
During the walkout, there were legislative squabbles over how to pay for the spending increases – a recently passed hotel and motel tax was repealed, and lawmakers passed a gambling tax and a measure to make it easier for the state to collect sales tax from purchases on online outlets such as Amazon. But the total promised increase in spending for next school year remained roughly the same.
The governor, who compared striking teachers to “a teenage kid that wants a better car” last week, said Thursday that she was glad they were returning to school.
“They’ve been out for two weeks, and it’s time for them to get back to school,” Fallin said in a statement. “Student learning at schools affected by the strike has been halted for nearly two weeks at a critical time in the academic year when federal and state testing requirements need to be completed.”
The Oklahoma walkout came on the heels of one last month in West Virginia, where Gov. Jim Justice signed a bill giving teachers a 5% pay raise after nine days. In Kentucky, teachers are preparing to rally Friday at the state Capitol in Frankfort, and in Arizona, educators are weighing a walkout of their own.
The decision to call off the Oklahoma walkout was met with mixed reaction from teachers, some of whom said the teachers’ union ended it prematurely.
“The OEA doesn’t get to decide when I’m finished,” said middle school choir teacher Renee Jerden, who said she was inspired by the walkout to run for state Senate. “I feel like it’s a cop-out – we have let them win by showing them they can behave however they want, and we’ll eventually get tired and go home.”
Teachers said additional spending was needed to improve deteriorating school facilities and outdated supplies. Many said they paid for classroom supplies with their own money while working multiple jobs to make ends meet.
The Oklahoma Education Association polled its members throughout the walkout, Priest said. By Thursday, 70% of respondents indicated they were unsure of continuing, she said.
But some teachers said they were not surveyed before the final decision was made.
“I’m disappointed in the pullout of support from our teacher-led movement to secure more funding for our schools before a consensus was reached through a majority of polling efforts,” said Jessica Lightle, a teacher at Puterbaugh Middle School in McAlester.
“I am, however, energized and motivated by the community of teachers, parents and students who have vowed to keep fighting for a better education for our children. This is a long road to recovery, and Oklahomans have actively engaged to heal our system. I look forward to the future.”
Her husband, Jason Lightle, an English teacher at McAlester High School, said complacency had allowed the state education system to deteriorate, and gains were modest compared with the need. But he said he hopes energy from the walkout will change that.
“My hope is that this walkout results in citizens becoming more engaged with their representatives at all levels so that the state of Oklahoma will become citizen-led, just as this walkout was teacher-led, and improvements can be made across the board. Complacency simply cannot be allowed any longer.”
Teachers pledge to run for office
Efforts to obtain more funding will continue away from the Capitol, Priest said. The union will be supporting its members and candidates who are running for office during the midterm elections against those who opposed funding Oklahoma’s schools.
The number of teachers vowing to run for office was one sign of the walkout’s success, said Kelly Craig, a fifth-grade teacher in Oklahoma City. “While it’s disheartening that the walkout ended, the walkout forced change that Oklahomans will see this November,” she said. “Without the walkout, this wouldn’t have occurred.”
Fourth-grade math and science teacher Carri Hicks brought her students to protests at the Capitol in Oklahoma City. She called the decision to end the walkout “bittersweet.” But she said the experience galvanized her and others to run for office.
“Advocacy levels are at an all-time high, and we have to make sure that momentum continues well into the next decade,” Hicks said
Jonathan Moy, a teacher at Yukon High School near Oklahoma City, blamed legislators for their unwillingness to budge. But he said he’s ready to go back to school.
“I told my students before this began that Oklahoma legislators have shown that education isn’t a priority. Now the nation has proof of this,” Moy said. “It’s disappointing, but I think we’ve accomplished as much as we can. The kids are the priority.”
CNN’s Jason Hanna contributed to this report.