School district administrators usually oppose teacher strikes. In Tulsa, however, public schools have been so strapped for cash that district leaders just pledged to support a walkout to try to get relief. And it looks as if Oklahoma could be the second state — following West Virginia — where every public school teacher walks out to push for better classroom conditions and higher pay.
A coalition of teachers, union and district leaders and others have been organizing to take action, and it seems likely that teachers will walk out statewide as early as this month.
In what may be a first in district-union cooperation, the Tulsa schools superintendent, as well as the presidents of the school board and the PTA council, on Monday night joined the head of the teachers union to pledge support for a Tulsa Board of Education resolution that supports “any steps necessary to improve conditions for our teachers — including a districtwide suspension of classes.”
Tulsa’s is the second largest school district in the state.
In Oklahoma, where teachers are paid less than in virtually any other place in the country, schools have been so financially challenged because of budget woes that students in some districts go to class only four days a week. In other places, class sizes have exploded, art and foreign-language programs have disappeared and new textbooks are a thing of the past.
A recent report by the nonprofit Center on Budget and Policy Priorities found that public investment in K-12 schools has declined “dramatically” in a dozen states over the past decade. And some of these, including Oklahoma, have also cut income tax rates, which is the main revenue source for schools. State revenue in Oklahoma has been hurt in recent years by a variety of factors, including a decline in oil prices, and though there was a $2-per-student increase this year in funding, it did little to make a dent in the state’s $1,058-per-student cut over the previous nine years.
If there is a statewide strike in Oklahoma, teachers there will be following educators in West Virginia who have shut down every school for more than a week in an effort to win higher pay. West Virginia teachers, too, earn less than most educators in the country, and many take second jobs to pay their bills.
A Facebook group, called Oklahoma Teacher Walkout — The Time is Now, now has more than 42,000 members. Deborah Gist, the superintendent of Tulsa Public Schools, signed a “commitment card” Monday night to support a strike, along with Board of Education President Suzanne Schreiber, Tulsa Classroom Teachers Association President Patti Ferguson-Palmer, and Tulsa Council of PTAs President Tina Kaminski. Gist had sent the following email to her staff before Monday night’s board meeting explaining the situation:
As you know, Oklahoma’s public education system remains chronically underfunded and our educators are severely underpaid. With the defeat of State Question 779 last year and the recent failure of the Step Up Oklahoma plan, it has become abundantly clear that the time has come to take decisive and drastic action on behalf of our teachers and students to improve the conditions in which they teach and learn. To that end, we are joining school districts from across the state to work with the leadership of the Oklahoma Education Association and our own TCTA to advocate for a proposal to restore funding to education and increase teacher salaries.
Beginning on March 12, we will support our teachers in a “work the contract” effort with escalating actions to follow over the coming weeks. While we are hoping to avoid the need for a teacher walkout and district shutdown, we stand ready to support those actions should they become necessary. During tonight’s meeting, our Board of Education will introduce a resolution to this effect and will also sign a commitment to taking action with our colleagues and peers in other Oklahoma communities and districts and supporting our teachers in job actions including working the contract, participating in organized walkouts, and engaging in a statewide shutdown of our public education system should that be a necessary step.
We are working closely with the TCTA, the OEA, and the Oklahoma Education Coalition to ensure that our efforts are designed to have maximum impact on our state legislature and minimum impact on our students. The reality is that our students and families will feel the impact of any job action that our teachers might take. We believe, however, that our students and families already feel the immense impact of a chronically underfunded education system where their teachers have to routinely make extraordinarily difficult decisions like which bill to pay late, how many part-time jobs to take on, and whether they can afford to stay in Oklahoma for another year and keep their heads above water financially.
Enough is enough. We must be willing to do everything within our power to change conditions for our teachers, students, families, and schools. Living our core value of character means that we make decisions, take action and approach our work based on what is best for our students and their success. We do the right thing even when it is hard. We face difficulty with courage and have the moral fortitude to act in accordance with our beliefs. This is a time to lead with character, and I couldn’t be prouder to do that alongside each of you on our exceptional team.
Here’s the text of the resolution that was introduced Monday night at the school board meeting and will be put up for a vote:
Whereas the Tulsa Public Schools Board of Education recognizes the chronic underfunding of public school education and continued cuts for more than a decade; and
Whereas the Tulsa Public Schools Board of Education is a witness to the consequences of this chronic underfunding and sees the victims in our teachers, staff, students, families, community and state; and
Whereas the Tulsa Public Schools Board of Education has supported and worked for solution after solution to fund teacher pay raises and common education, only to see the legislature unsuccessfully find common ground and pass legislation comprehensively addressing this emergency; and
Whereas no one has worked harder nor waited longer for a raise and for resources in the classroom nor sacrificed more than our teachers; and
Whereas the Tulsa Public Schools Board of Education on behalf of our students and families cannot allow this crisis to continue through another legislative session, we support all measures taken by our classroom teachers to demand the necessary funding for a meaningful teacher pay raise and adequate education funding; and
Whereas we are confident our parents, families, caregivers, faith leaders and their congregations, business leaders, laborers, teachers’ families and school district administrators, neighbors and friends will gracefully fill the gap and make the sacrifices necessary while our teachers advocate for what they need to educate our children and secure the future of Oklahoma in ways they see fit.
Be it resolved that the Tulsa Board of Education is in full support of the legislation and advocacy plan endorsed by our teachers and stands ready to take any steps necessary to improve conditions for our teachers — including a districtwide suspension of classes.
The Tulsa Public Schools Board of Education implores the Oklahoma State Legislature to work urgently on behalf of the children and families in our state to take swift and meaningful action to develop a viable plan to pay teachers the professional salaries they deserve and to provide the additional support they need.
Resolved this ________day of March 2018.