OKLAHOMA CITY — Teachers threatened Thursday to walk out of classrooms and force school closures starting April 2 unless lawmakers find a way to increase state spending by nearly $1.5 billion.
“Schools will stay closed until we get what we are asking for,” said Alicia Priest, president of the Oklahoma Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union that represents thousands of educators across Oklahoma.
After years of doing more with less — educating students with out-of-date curriculum and no textbooks and cramming classrooms so full of students that teachers can’t provide necessary, individualized attention — it’s time to demand change, Priest said. Meanwhile, thousands of educators are leaving the state or the profession in search of better-paying opportunities, she said.
“Oklahoma educators have reached a breaking point. We cannot — no, we will not — allow our students to go without any longer,” Priest said.
Priest said the only way lawmakers will be able to ward off school closures is to:
— Pass a three-year, $10,000 pay increase — including $6,000 for the first year — for teachers at a cost of $610 million;
— Pass a three-year $5,000 pay increase — with $2,500 for the first year — for school support personnel at a cost of $130 million;
— Spend $200 million more on public school funding over three years;
— Allocate $213 million for an a state employee pay raise over three years;
— and increase health care funding by $255.9 million over two years.
“We want them to pass a budget that includes a meaningful pay raise for education support professionals, for teachers and state employees,” she said. “We want them to pass a budget that turns around decades of underfunding and budget cuts and begins reinvesting in our public schools and our essential state services.”
Under state law, the Legislature is required to pass a budget funding education by April 1, Priest said. If lawmakers fail to comply with state law, teachers will walk out of classrooms, she said.
“There’s some anger — real, true anger,” said state Rep. Jacob Rosecrants, D-Norman, prior to the union’s announcement. “And it’s not just teachers. It’s parents and it’s superintendents and administrators as well.”
Rosecrants, who worked as an Oklahoma City public school teacher prior to his election to the state House, said he made only $11,000 working as a teacher’s assistant his first year. And after six years as classroom teacher, he said he made about $35,400 — and that was in one of the better paying school districts.
“There was times where I had to choose, ‘Do I put gas in the tank, or do I get food for my kids?'” he said, adding that he drives a 2006 PT Cruiser that is falling apart.
Oklahoma’s teacher pay is currently the lowest in the region, experts say. The average teacher made $44,921 during the 2016-17 school year, according to the state Department of Education. The regional average was $48,450, the agency reported.
“Something massive needs to happen,” Rosecrants said. “I think we (the Legislature) just need to wake up. We need a wake-up call here at the Capitol.”
A full shutdown of public schools would provide that, he said.
But not everyone is on board with a teacher walkout, officials said.
“Contacts that I’ve had from southwest Oklahoma, there’s a lot of mixed messages coming out,” said state Sen. Mike Schulz, R-Altus, the president pro tem. “Not all school districts are in favor of this method. Everybody is supportive of increased teacher pay, but mixed messages of how we arrive at that.”
Schulz said he doubts that all teachers support a walkout and school closures.
And while he backs giving teachers a raise if lawmakers can figure out how to pay for it, he said the request for a $10,000 pay increase is “very unrealistic.”
Schulz said an annual expenditure estimated to cost $600 million will be a tough sell for lawmakers, particularly in the state House, which hasn’t been able to garner enough votes to even pass revenue-raising measures that would generate $300 million.
As the teacher’s union prepared for their press conference announcing their planned walkout, the state’s Board of Education held an emergency meeting to approve legislatively mandated, midyear cuts to public school funding. Common education will lose as much as $16.2 million in funding under the latest budget approved last month by the Republican-controlled Legislature. The current state budget is about $6.98 billion.
State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister told the board that every district will approach the proposed teacher walkout differently. Many districts are already having conversations with their local school boards about adjusting the calendar to allow for advocacy at the Capitol.
Under state law, districts have to ensure school is in session a minimum of 1,080 hours or 175 days a year in order to receive state aid. Schools are also federally required to hold state-level assessments, which take up much of April, she said.
But Hofmeister said the state is several years into a “crippling teacher shortage.” As a result, districts across the state have overcrowded classrooms, with nearly 2,000 emergency certification requests since June. Districts are reducing class offerings, and there’s a struggle to recruit students to join the ranks of teacher-training programs.
“Let me say this unequivocally: These effects will not be remedied without competitive teacher pay and having that realized for all the teachers in the state,” Hofmeister said. “Why does this matter? It matters because our children deserve and need a high quality education, and that can’t happen without well-trained and well-equipped teachers.”
Hofmeister’s agency is calling on lawmakers to approve a $5,000 raise for all classroom teachers to bring teacher pay up to the regional average.
“House Republicans understand and share the frustration that our public school teachers are experiencing, and we remain committed to finding a way to increase teacher pay this session,” said House Speaker Charles McCall, R-Atoka, in statement.
He canceled a scheduled media availability Thursday ahead of the union’s announcement.
McCall said ideas are being discussed that could potentially help fully fund a “substantive pay raise” for teachers.
“There will be ongoing discussions in the coming weeks on how we can find even more revenue to help our teachers,” he said.