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5 years after the teacher walkouts, Oklahoma's GOP has changed its tune

In early April 2018, Oklahoma teachers descended on the Republican-controlled statehouse to make their case for more school funding and better pay.
Scott Heins
Getty Images
In early April 2018, Oklahoma teachers descended on the Republican-controlled statehouse to make their case for more school funding and better pay.

Five years ago, thousands of Oklahoma teachers joined a nationwide movement when they walked out of their classrooms to protest for better pay and more school funding. Throngs of educators and their allies marched around the statehouse, making their case to lawmakers. They were energized and hopeful – but that hope was short-lived.

Oklahoma's Republican majority ultimately blocked many of the proposals teachers walked out for in 2018. But this session, something unexpected is happening: The state's Republicans are now backing record-level education funding measures, including teacher raises and a slew of pro-labor bills.

Republican state Sen. Adam Pugh chairs the Senate Education Committee and authored several bills aimed at attracting and retaining teachers, including the state's first paid maternity leave policy for educators.

Pugh says, "I hope teachers are receiving the message that I — we — value what they do. We care about them. We need more of them."

What's changed since the walkout

In the five years since teachers descended on Oklahoma's statehouse, a lot has changed – and a lot hasn't.

Oklahoma's record-breaking teacher shortages have gotten worse: Emergency teacher certifications have more than doubled since the walkout. And the state almost quadrupled its use of adjunct teachers in the 2021-'22 school year – those are teachers who aren't held to any state requirements when it comes to teaching certifications and college degrees.

Teachers saw some pay increases and increased classroom funding over the last five years, but Oklahoma still ranks in the bottom half of all states when it comes to pay, and per-pupil spending is still among the lowest in the country.

The walkout planted a seed

Pugh says the 2018 walkout helped him connect with his constituents who live and breathe the Oklahoma teacher experience – and those relationships still inform his work today.

"It's important to note that they weren't just relationships built on 100% agreement, because that's not what good relationships are built on, right?" Pugh explains. "They're built on empathy and understanding and the diversity of our perspectives and how we appreciate that and each other. And so that was, I think, just for me, a tremendous part of that experience, during that walkout."

Pugh is now shepherding a handful of measures he believes could make a meaningful dent in the teacher shortage, including:

  • Eight weeks of paid maternity leave. The state doesn't currently require school districts to offer paid parental leave, and many don't, leaving teachers with few options when they have a baby in the middle of the school year.
  • A pay raise. Lawmakers are currently negotiating proposals that range from $2,000-$6,000. The average starting salary for Oklahoma teachers was $38,074 in the 2020-'21 school year, and the average overall salary was $57,105.
  • An expansion of the state's mentor teacher program, which would give $500 per year to veteran teachers assisting first-year teachers.
  • Doing away with the state's mandated teacher evaluation system and allowing local districts to set their own evaluation criteria.
  • Establishing the Oklahoma Teacher Corps Program, which would pay for a teaching degree at a public state university in exchange for four years of teaching at a low-performing school in Oklahoma.

These measures all passed the state Senate with overwhelming support and now await approval from the House.

Pugh says when the walkout ended, it may not have had the immediate effect educators hoped for — but it planted a seed.

"We're now looking at almost a doubled education budget in essentially half a decade, which is pretty amazing, I think, for the state of Oklahoma."

But it's not a done deal yet.

It's too early for teachers to count victories

Democratic Sen. Carri Hicks is a former elementary teacher who won her office in the fall of 2018, months after the walkout. She says it's still too early to count victories on many of the measures Pugh and other Republicans have put forward.

The funding increase Pugh mentioned? It would add about $540 million to the education budget, but it's stuck in a stalemate between House and Senate Republicans.

Hicks is concerned about the toll on certain teachers if any of these efforts fizzle out.

"I still am worried that it's false hope for some of those teachers who are really hanging in there, looking to the legislature for some meaningful solutions. And that false hope, I feel like, is more detrimental than not."

And while Hicks acknowledges the push for pro-education measures from some of her colleagues across the aisle, she says teachers are still feeling targeted. The conservative state superintendent of public instruction, Ryan Walters, has accused some teachers of pushing "woke" leftist indoctrination and distributing pornography. He has also joined Republican lawmakers in supporting a voucher-like program that would allow families to use tax dollars to pay for private school or homeschooling. Walters has dismissed his critics as part of the "radical left," and cited them as examples of political correctness "run amok."

Hicks says that messaging isn't helping to draw more educators to Oklahoma.

"We're looking at certain folks who, you know, are really trying to do positive things for public education, and then in the same breath, you've got these massive attacks coming from every other angle."

Time after time, Hicks says, she's seen once-promising measures unrecognizably whittled down or just abandoned altogether. The legislature can be a "place of pragmatism," but she cautions against idealism.

"It's hard to hold on to that hope."

For some teachers, the walkouts are a powerful – and painful – memory

Joel Deardorf shares Hicks' skepticism.

Deardorf is an orchestra director at Putnam City Schools in northwest Oklahoma City. He organized a teacher walkout band back in 2018.

He says he hopes the legislature will move forward with prioritizing school funding. But as the two chambers quarrel over a budget many teachers could only dream of during the walkout, Deardorf isn't holding his breath. Instead, he says his focus is on teaching.

"Teachers have to be able to block out the noise," he explains, " 'cause if not, all you want to do is look for your way out. And to a degree, I am too, but not at the expense of my kids in my classroom today and tomorrow."

Like many walkout veterans, he says thinking back on that moment in 2018 feels powerful. But it's a painful memory, too.

"I mean, it's a time period that I will never, ever forget. But I never, ever want to do it again."

Beth Wallis is an education reporter for StateImpact Oklahoma. She is also a former Oklahoma teacher who participated in the 2018 walkouts.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Beth Wallis
[Copyright 2024 KOSU]