Educators face tough choice with looming walkout

David Blatt

OKLAHOMA CITY — Education groups face a tough choice regarding the teacher walkout’s future now that Gov. Mary Fallin has signed a measure officially adopting the largest pay increase in state history.

But now, observers note the teacher unions seem fractured and unsure of the best path forward ahead of their threatened walkout Monday.

Some hard-liner educators believe the Legislature’s average $6,100 teacher pay increase — the first in more than a decade — is too little and comes too late. They think it’s time to ratchet up the pressure on lawmakers to provide more compensation and school spending.

“I think the teachers unions are in a tight spot trying to reconcile the demands from some of their more hardcore members compared to what is attainable from the Legislature,” said David Blatt, executive director of the Oklahoma Policy Institute, a Tulsa think-tank. “There (are) a lot of folks that are going to have difficult decisions to make over the next week, and I don’t know that anybody can really predict what those decisions are going to look like.”

The state’s largest teacher’s union said Thursday it still plans to force school closures despite the raises and the $447 million in tax increases funding it.

The package increases the gross production tax charged to oil and gas drillers. It increases the state’s gasoline tax by 3 cents and the diesel tax by 6 cents. Consumers will pay $1 more per pack of cigarettes. Lawmakers also plan to cap the amount of itemized deductions Oklahomans can claim on their taxes.

“Our members are pretty hot, and they want to see results,” said Doug Folks, a spokesman for Oklahoma Education Association. “They’ve only funded about half our plan. They haven’t talked about years two and three. The school funding portion was quite a bit less than we asked for."

The group’s members plan to be at the Capitol until they’re satisfied, he said. The association is calling for nearly $1.5 billion in increased spending over three years.

Folks said the Legislature has plenty of money or additional taxes that could be levied to fund education.

“I think it is going to be a real heavy lift to get agreement on approving any of those additional revenues,” Blatt said. “I think legislators are going to see that they did what they needed to do, and I think it’s going to be very difficult to get them to consider Round 2 this session.”

Legislators already are getting “beat up by their constituents” in their home districts for agreeing to raise taxes, said Ginger Tinney, executive director of Professional Oklahoma Educators association. The nonprofit professional organization has nearly 12,000 members.

“I feel bad for them because they’re trying to do the right thing, but they can’t please everyone,” she said.

Now that teachers have a $6,100 average raise, Tinney said she fears educators will see public sympathy begin to erode if they push too hard, potentially alienating Capitol support.

Tinney said many Oklahomans would be thrilled to receive a $5,000 raise in a year. Under the plan, the starting certified teacher salary will be increased by about $5,000 — from $32,600 to $37,759.

“I am starting to see some negative (reactions) from the public,” she said. “I think everybody wanted teachers to have a pay raise, but now they’re saying, ‘Why are they walking out now?' If you walk now, it could present a very different image.”

The raise “propels” Oklahoma to second in the region’s average teacher pay, moving the state from “the basement” to better than 19 other states, said state Superintendent Joy Hofmeister in a statement.

More experienced classroom teachers would receive an even larger raise based on years of service and certification. For example, certified teachers with 25 years experience could see their pay increase by nearly $8,000 to top out at $51,232, according to a budget analysis.

Advocates say low teacher compensation pushes educators out of Oklahoma classrooms and the profession. Teacher compensation is currently the lowest in the region and among the lowest in the country, according to education groups.

The average Oklahoma teacher made $44,921 last year, according to the state Department of Education. The regional average was $48,450.

Now that the raise is a done deal, Tinney said many of the teachers she represents are content to stay in the classroom. However, some will head to the Capitol on Monday to hand out water and snacks and thank lawmakers.

School districts statewide, meanwhile, were re-evaluating whether they want to allow teachers to skip class next week in order to come to the Capitol to advocate.

The pay raise puts the state above the regional average, perhaps for the first time ever, said Shawn Hime, executive director of Oklahoma State School Boards Association.

“Some are looking at using Monday as a celebration day to come to the Capitol and thank the governor and the Legislature for passing such a historic measure,” he said. “I think even the most hardened idealists are looking more toward future long-term funding.”

Hime said he hopes teachers will finish out the school year, and shift their focus to strengthening education spending in future years.

“If you have 50,000 teachers, we’re not going to have 100 percent that like everything about the plan,” Hime said. “I’m hopeful they see the historic nature of the plan, and they move forward with helping us create a plan for recurring revenue for future years, for classroom spending and hiring teachers back.”

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Stecklein is state reporter for Oklahoma CNHI News Service publication newspapers. She can be reached at jstecklein@cnhi.com.

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