Oklahoma Teachers Win a Partial Victory

Teacher protests in Oklahoma produced a pay raise — and shifted the fight with Republicans until the November elections. Photo: Scott Heins/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Like its predecessor and partial inspiration, the nine-day teachers’ strike in West Virginia, a nine-day teachers’ walkout in Oklahoma is ending with some tangible results: a pay increase of roughly $6,000 (with a smaller pay hike for support staff), and some new revenues intended to make higher school funding possible in the immediate future. Most of these gains, however, were made before the actual strike began, as the Republican-controlled legislature (and Republican governor Mary Fallin) tried to head it off. Little or no headway was made on the teachers’ broader demands for a restoration of prior education funding cuts, to be paid for by a rollback of the tax cuts that the GOP has regularly enacted in this deep-red state.

So the teachers’ leadership decided to pocket the concessions they were offered and focus on changing the political dynamics of the state in this November’s elections, as the New York Times reports:

At a news conference, Alicia Priest, president of the Oklahoma Education Association, characterized the nine-day walkout as “a victory for teachers,” even as it fell short of its goals….

“We got here by electing the wrong people to office,” Ms. Priest said. “We have the opportunity to make our voices heard at the ballot box.”

Some teachers are unhappy with the decision to stop the strike, which was also motivated by fears that public support for teachers might quickly erode in the face of a deadlock with legislators:

An official end to the nine-day strike likely won’t end all activity. Teachers in a Facebook group with over 73,000 members vowed to continue protesting despite their union’s wishes, and several outspoken educators have announced intentions to run for office.

Partial success and continued agitation probably offer an ideal scenario for Oklahoma’s downtrodden Democrats, who generally backed the strike and after winning four legislative special elections in the state last year, enjoy better electoral prospects in 2018 than they’ve had in a good while.

Meanwhile, national attention on what has clearly become a national wave of unrest among teachers and education advocates will now focus on Kentucky and Arizona.

In the Bluegrass State, restive teachers have not launched a statewide strike, but have forced one round of school closures as they gathered in the state capital to protest a GOP pension “reform” bill, and could force another one as legislators return from a recess. Conservative Republican governor Matt Bevin championed and signed the bill significantly eroding pension rights for new teacher hires. And for the most part, the state’s GOP has been dismissive of teacher protests on this and the more general topic of education spending. As in Oklahoma, the battle is being transferred into the electoral arena, as the Louisville Courier-Journal reports:

All 100 seats in the House and half the Kentucky Senate’s 38 seats are on the ballot.

Forty-three current or retired educators are running as Democrats for the legislature, party spokesman Brad Bowman said.

In Arizona, the moment of truth has not definitively arrived, though teachers are threatening a statewide walkout if a broad range of demands (similar to those of Oklahoma teachers) from pay raises to retroactive education funding restoration are not met. But like their Oklahoma counterparts, Arizona’s Republicans seem inclined to preempt any strike with limited concessions. Earlier this week Governor Doug Ducey, who is up for reelection this year, publicly offered teachers a phased-in series of pay raises amounting to 20 percent by 2020, along with some boosts in education funding — without, he claims, a tax increase. Teachers want more details before negotiating on this offer (there is a chance the deal will include a scheme to head off a ballot initiative on a potentially explosive school voucher initiative that teachers strongly oppose), but in the end they may, as has been the case in other states, have to decide whether to pocket concessions and move on to electoral activity or go to the mattresses now.

All in all, nothing that’s happened so far in the wave of teacher unrest in red states will keep it from spreading further. And without question, the broader choice between robust education funding and serial tax cuts will be on the ballot in many states this November.

Oklahoma Teachers Win a Partial Victory