OEA presser.jpg

Oklahoma Education Association President Alicia Priest (center) speaks during a press conference while teachers look on Thursday afternoon at the state Capitol. The OEA called off a nine-day statewide teacher walkout Thursday, urging educators and their supporters to shift their focus to the the fall elections.

KWTV-News 9 via Facebook

Claiming a major victory for students, the Oklahoma Education Association called off a statewide teacher walkout Thursday and urged educators to focus on the fall elections.

Nine school days days after the walkout began, OEA President Alicia Priest said the teachers union had secured $479 million in new state aid for schools in fiscal year 2019. She said the funding package included significant pay raises for teachers and school support staffers and recurring revenue for classrooms.

“Each and everyone who has marched at the Capitol, written emails, made calls and worked in so many ways in their own communities should be overwhelmed with pride,” Priest said during a press conference in Oklahoma City. “You have achieved a historic victory for our students. And it shouldn’t have to be historic — the biggest financial victory in history for our students.”

But Priest said the Legislature hasn’t taken up any school finance bills since April 6, and legislative leaders have told the OEA that they won’t consider any more legislation on that subject this year.

Priest said the OEA polled its members this week, and 70 percent of those surveyed said they doubted that continuing the walkout would lead to even more money for public schools.

An Ada News reporter monitored a video of the press conference, which was produced by KWTV-News 9 and shared on OEA’s Facebook page.

Education spending

In March, the OEA urged teachers across the state to walk off their jobs in early April unless the Legislature approved a suitable education budget before then. The walkout was designed to prod lawmakers to pump more money into public schools.

Shortly before the April 2 deadline, lawmakers responded with a $479 million spending plan for education. That plan included pay raises for teachers, school support employees and state workers; additional money for school operations; and increases in the benefit allowance for school employees.

Lawmakers primarily funded the plan with a series of tax increases on tobacco, motor fuels and gross production for oil and gas drillers.

The revenue package included a $5-per-night guest tax on motel and hotel rooms, but the Legislature later repealed that tax — eliminating about $40 million in revenue. Gov. Mary Fallin signed off on the repeal amid OEA’s complaints that lawmakers were backing out their commitment to provide full funding for the education spending plan.

Despite the Legislature’s actions, the statewide teacher walkout began April 2 and lasted until Thursday. During the walkout, tens of thousands of teachers and their supporters flocked to the Capitol each day to press their case that lawmakers needed to undo years of spending cuts to public schools.

The Senate later approved two additional revenue-raising measures, including a sales tax on third-party internet sales. That measure was expected to generate $20 million for schools.

Senate leaders said they were not willing to consider additional measures on school funding this year, The Oklahoman reported in Friday’s editions. At the same time, the GOP-controlled House declined to consider repealing the capital gains tax deduction, which could have generated an additional $100 million for state coffers.

OEA President Alicia Priest said Thursday that the walkout helped the union achieve almost all of its goals for fiscal year 2019 — the first year of a three-year campaign aimed at convincing lawmakers to increase spending on education. But she said it’s time to move on to the next phase of the campaign: electing pro-election candidates to the Legislature.

“While the walkout is ending today and we’re going back to school, we are not just giving up and going home,” she said. “Instead, we are moving on to the next phase in our ongoing efforts.”

Priest urged school districts to start sending lobbying teams to the Capitol on Monday because the Legislature is still considering various school-related bills. She said the OEA will continue to support advocacy efforts, but she said teachers must turn their attention to the fall elections.

“In addition to making our case at the steps at the Capitol, we have the opportunity to make our voices heard at the ballot box,” Priest said. “The state didn’t find itself in a school funding crisis overnight.

“We got here by electing the wrong people to office. No more.”

Eric Swanson can be contacted by email at eswanson@theadanews.com.

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Eric Swanson is the City Hall and general assignment reporter for The Ada News. He spent 15 years working at the Dodge City Daily Globe in Dodge City, Kansas, before joining The Ada News’ staff in 2012.