By OLAN FIELD
Seven months and a midterm election later, the lasting effects of Oklahoma’s teacher walkout in April remains anything but clear.
According to Rep. Jacob Rosecrants, D-Norman, 70 to 80 former teachers left their positions after the walkout in April to run for the state legislator. Rosecrants is a former teacher who was first elected in a special election in 2017, after his predecessor resigned, inspired to run after a decade of cuts to public education dating to 2007.
“I honestly had heard numbers, and people were telling me, ‘You know, that wasn’t going to be a big blue wave, but it was going to be a big educator wave,’ and we saw that,” Rosecrants said.
Education was a top issue discussed in the run-up to the election, with every candidate being questioned about their plan to its restore funding. Oklahoma cut the education budget by 26.9 percent between 2008 and 2017, according to the Oklahoma Policy Institute. According to the latest data from the National Center of Education Statistics, Oklahoma spends $8,096 per student.
Former educators ran as both Democrats and Republicans, illustrating that this was not a partisan issue for voters. With many of these educators beating their incumbent opponents who voted against measures that would increase taxes and be allocated toward public education.
This is what newly elected Rep. Sherrie Conley, R-Newcastle, did when she ran against incumbent Bobby Cleveland, an opponent of the teacher walkout who voted against HB 1010 and stated during the workout that “The the teachers should be in the classroom.”
With funding to public education being a significant influence on the election, an educated assumption would be that it will be a focus of the coming legislative session, but some representatives say that the topic may take a second-row seat.
“We will have to wait and see if more revenue will go to education, or if it’s time to move on to something else,” Rosecrants said. “Criminal justice reform and mental health issues are the two big issues, and I think you’re going to see that with this particular session rather than education.”
Alicia Priest, president of the Oklahoma Education Association, believes that more effort needs to be placed on finding revenue measures that can increase spending for public education.
“We had 10 years of cuts to public education equaling about a billion dollars. There is no way that one year of increased funding is going to make up for that incredible loss,” said Priest.
The Oklahoma Education Association, through a coalition called ‘Save Our State,’ proposed a variety of budget revenue options in what they call a “blueprint for a better budget.” This plan includes raising the gross production tax on oil and gas by another two percent and reforming the corporate income tax.
On March 29, four days before the start of the teacher walkout, Gov. Mary Fallin signed both HB 1010 and HB 1023 under threat of an impending teacher strike.
HB 1010 was the largest tax increase ever to be passed in the state of Oklahoma. The revenue packages totaling $474 million through a variety of revenue measures including an increase in the gross production tax to five percent, a $5 hotel/motel tax, and an increase to the sales tax on gasoline and diesel. HB 1023, allocated revenue from HB 1010 to fund the $5,000 raise to first-year teachers.
Over the weekend, it was unsure if the teacher walkout would continue on Monday as planned. Teachers would still show up, demanding an increase in funding for the classroom. The walkout would end after nine days as some of the state’s largest districts resumed class, without any significant legislation being passed.
Morgan Russell, a teacher at Westmoore High School who attended the teacher walkout, believes the “education crisis is still a crisis.”
“(Teacher raises) are not the sole reason we were at the Capitol,” Russell said. “We didn’t get funding for the classroom. That means our students are still using textbooks that are ancient and that we still have too many students in our classroom that are still falling apart.”
Russell understands that education is not the only issue facing the state, but believes that it is a root cause for many of the other issues.
“We incarcerate more women per capita than any other state, and the data clearly shows that when education goes up, incarcerations go down. Our state, in particular, has a school to prison pipeline, so we need to address the problem from both ends,” Russell said.
It is still unknown if the newly elected legislators who ran on an agenda to increase education spending will have their way in the coming session, or if they will have to negotiate their votes with the leadership in favor of having education funding measures heard on the floor.
“I don’t personally believe education will be pushed aside in the near future,” said Rep. Scott Fetgatter, R-Okmulgee. “Win or lose, Republican or Democrat, start looking at the big picture of things that we need to fix. Many different areas across the state, including education and prioritize them. Until then, our state will continue to be at the bottom of all of this.”
Education will certainly be on the minds of many at the Capitol, but whether or not any legislation for more spending on public education remains to be seen.