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Oklahoma teacher walkout winds down despite lawmakers’ failure to meet demands

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Oklahoma’s largest teachers union Thursday announced an end to a walkout that has drawn thousands of educators out of classrooms and to the state Capitol demanding greater investment in the state’s schools, which have endured the nation’s steepest funding cuts.

The announcement from the Oklahoma Education Association does not necessarily end the protests at the Capitol, as teachers not affiliated with the union vowed to stay longer. Instead of a walkout, the union and school districts across the state have said they plan to send delegations of teachers to Oklahoma City to keep pressure on lawmakers. Teachers and their supporters have also promised to push education issues to the forefront of November elections, when the state chooses a new governor.

But signs emerged Friday night that some teachers remained determined to continue their walkout. The Oklahoma City American Federation of Teachers asked that district to close schools on Monday to allow teachers to continue lobbying lawmakers.

Alicia Priest, president of the Oklahoma Education Association, expressed disappointment that the two-week effort — which began April 2 and caused about a half-million students to miss at least a day of school — did not yield better results.

“Despite tens of thousands of people filling the Capitol and spilling out over the grounds for nine days, we have seen no significant legislative movement since last Friday,” Priest said in a news release Thursday. “We recognize our formal efforts to lobby elected leaders have achieved all that we will accomplish this legislative session.”

The walkout in Oklahoma is part of a wave of teacher protests hitting states that have slashed school spending to make up for tax cuts and other blows to state revenue.

On Thursday, Arizona’s governor, responding to weeks of protests, announced a proposal he said would raise teacher salaries by 20 percent within two years. Teachers in that state, which ranks near the bottom in average teacher pay and has endured deep spending cuts, had threatened to walk out unless they got a raise and additional investments in schools.

Schools in Louisville, the largest system in Kentucky, closed Friday as thousands of teachers said they would be absent on the same day a major teacher rally unfolded at the state Capitol in Frankfort.

The series of recent job actions began in West Virginia, where teachers won a 5 percent raise after shutting down schools for nine days. Their success catalyzed the movement in Oklahoma, which largely grew out of a Facebook page started by a 25-year-old middle school teacher from Stillwater. Kentucky teachers followed, shutting down some school districts to protest a pension bill signed by Gov. Matt Bevin (R).

Because of tax cuts and falling oil prices, Oklahoma’s revenue has cratered, forcing it to slash state education funding. Adjusted for inflation, spending per student has plummeted nearly 30 percent over the past decade, according to the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. The results have been stark for classrooms and educators: Oklahoma’s teachers are among the worst paid in the nation, and nearly 20 percent of schools moved to four-day school weeks to save money.

Last month, faced with the prospect of a walkout, Oklahoma lawmakers approved measures to raise teachers’ salaries an average of $6,100 a year and support staff pay by $1,250 and to invest an additional $50 million in classrooms. It marked the first time in 10 years that state lawmakers had raised the salary schedule. The package of bills included an increase in a production tax on oil companies.

The measure did not meet the teachers’ demands for a $10,000 raise for themselves, a $6,000 raise for support staff and $200 million in additional classroom funding. Teachers said the $50 million boost would foster little change once it was distributed statewide. It would not enable districts with four-day school weeks to return to five.

Teachers converged on the Capitol by the tens of thousands beginning last week, closing schools across the state. Some reopened on the walkout’s second day, and several more reopened this week. But the state’s two largest school districts — in Tulsa and Oklahoma City — have remained closed Friday.

The legislature did not commit additional money to education during the walkout. But the teachers’ raucous presence may have pushed lawmakers to pass two bills to raise additional state revenue, giving schools greater assurance the state will deliver on its funding commitments.

Together, the measures — which expand the number of online purchases subject to state sales tax and allow ball-and-dice games in the state’s tribal casinos — are projected to bring in more than $40 million in revenue.

Education groups applauded the progress. Between the raises and the additional classroom investments, the state will spend about $500 million more on education.

“Investing in education and ensuring elected officials are committed to public education must be the new normal for Oklahoma, and I believe Oklahomans are committed to a future that’s much better than our past. Today isn’t the end game for our children, our teachers or our schools,” said Shawn Hime, executive director of the Oklahoma State School Boards Association. “It’s a new beginning.”