Conservatives Work to Undermine Oklahoma Teachers’ Raises After Walkout

Originally published in Rewire News on May 7, 2018.
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When Oklahoma educators headed back to school in mid-April after their historic nine-day walkout, they did so with mixed feelings. They hadn’t won all of their key legislative demands, but they didn’t return empty handed either: Teachers won salary increases of roughly $6,100 each, and raises of $1,250 for school support staff. The pay increases, set to take effect on August 1 would be paid for by new taxes on cigarettes, motor fuel, and oil and gas production. “We achieved something that we all thought might be impossible,” declared Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin (R) when she signed the tax legislation into law.

But some conservative activists are saying, “not so fast.”

Members of Oklahoma Taxpayers Unite, an anti-tax group, filed paperwork last week to get a veto referendum on the November ballot. The group has until July 18th to collect about 41,000 signatures. The new taxes to fund the salary increases are scheduled to go into effect on July 1, but there’s debate over whether those would need to be put on hold if activists collect enough ballot signatures before that date.

A representative from Oklahoma Taxpayers Unite did not return Rewire.News‘ request for comment, but a member of the group, Ronda Vuillemont-Smith, told Oklahoma’s local NBC affiliate that they “believe very much that teachers need a pay raise” and that her group’s ballot initiative is “not personal.” Vuillemont-Smith argued that legislators should conduct statewide audits to eliminate waste from agency budgets before raising taxes.

Ed Allen, president of the Oklahoma City American Federation of Teachers, told Rewire.News there’d be “no way” the referendum would pass if it were voted on today. “There’s zero chance, I’d put big money on that,” he said. But Allen acknowledged that “a lot of things could happen between now and November” as anti-tax groups start raising money and doing advertising. “It’s a shame that we have to spend some of our attention and resources on defeating this when we want to defeat those representatives who don’t lift a finger to help education,” he said.

The Oklahoma Education Association (OEA), the largest teacher union in the state, is also gearing up to fight the ballot initiative.

Lawyers for the union believe the salary increases are locked in, and the veto referendum addresses only a funding mechanism for those raises. But a provision in the teacher pay bill stipulates it will not become law unless items from the tax increase bill are enacted.

“There are probably going to be conflicting views on this,” an OEA attorney told the Associated Press. “At the end of the day we’ll need some determination, from either the courts or the attorney general.”

Educators did manage to stave off a separate challenge last week, defeating what some public education advocates were calling a Republican “revenge bill.”

Taking aim at a bill designed to protect children from abuse and neglect, Oklahoma state Rep. Todd Russ (R-Cordell) introduced a last-minute amendment to prevent school districts from automatically deducting union dues from teacher paychecks. Educators instead would need to make other arrangements to handle membership payments. Russ’s amendment would have also mandated that a majority of educators in each school district vote every five years on whether they want to keep their collective bargaining unit; if a majority did not vote in favor, the school district would be stripped of union representation.

Doug Folks, a spokesperson for OEA, told Rewire.News that teachers, police officers, firefighters, and state employees inundated legislators’ phone systems and “in about 18 hours, we were able to get enough promises of no votes that the [amendment] was never heard.” The bill, SB 1150, was approved by lawmakers without the anti-union provisions. It now awaits the governor’s approval.

It wasn’t the first time state Rep. Russ has introduced legislative language like that and union leaders say they would not be surprised if he tries again in the future. “He’s just union-busting,” said Allen. “Plain and simple.”

Rep. Russ did not return Rewire.News’ request for comment, but he told NewsOk that he was looking out to protect teacher fairness.

State Rep. Forrest Bennett, a first-term Democrat representing Oklahoma City, told Rewire.News he did view Russ’s amendment as strike retribution on the part of the GOP leadership.

“Those of my colleagues in the legislature who are frustrated with teachers and other education advocates are showing their true colors,” he said. “They’re saying they are frustrated with the ‘tactics’ of the teachers and the unions, but in reality I think they’re pretty sore from being exposed. For years, legislators have been able to go home to their constituents and claim they’re all for education. But teachers across the state learned that their legislators talk about better schools out of one side of their mouth and then advocate for tax cuts out of the other. We can’t fund core services like education while we cut, cut, cut.”

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Politicized By Trump, Teachers Threaten to Shake Up Red-State Politics

Originally published in The Intercept on April 17, 2018.
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THE TEACHERS STRIKES that have roiled red states across the country burst onto the national scene seemingly out of nowhere. But a closer look at the people who make up this movement reveals the distinct Trump-era nature of the uprising.

In the four states where teachers movements have erupted over the past few months — Arizona, West Virginia, Kentucky, and Oklahoma — educators and community members are encountering broadly similar circumstances. In all four states, residents are reacting to years of Republican-controlled legislatures, a decline in state funding for students and teachers, an expansion of private school vouchers and charter schools, and an increasingly galvanized electorate that is motivated by all sorts of other organizing efforts that have emerged since Donald Trump won the 2016 presidential election.

And while the ranks of the educators are stocked with progressives, the strikes would have flopped had they not been joined by conservative Republican teachers who are, in significant ways, manifestations of what Washington pundits have begun to believe are purely imaginary people outside of the Beltway: folks who remain ardently conservative but are rejecting the direction the party has taken in the White House, back home or both.

“This whole effort has helped shake people from a slumber, and more people are asking, ‘Well, how is my representative voting?’” said Noah Karvelis, a public school teacher in Phoenix and a #RedforEd organizer.“People are asking if they need to rethink their votes. On our Facebook page, we even have a lot conservative teachers writing about how frustrated they are with our Republican legislators.”

Adelina Clonts, an educator in Oklahoma for more than 20 years, marched with her ten-year-old daughter from Tulsa to her state capitol, more than a hundred miles, motivated by the chance to give her students with special needs a greater shot at life.

Clonts, a Republican, said when she arrived in Oklahoma City she was disappointed to learn what her legislators had been up to. “I physically went out there to do my own research, and I found out this was basically Republicans not wanting to do their jobs, not wanting to really represent us,” she said. “It really upset me because I’m an active political party person, and it just felt like they were not hearing us.”

Clonts said she and her colleagues are prepared to vote out both Republicans and Democrats. “Everyone wants these problems fixed, and the question for our leaders is, are you trying to do something about it?”

Another Tulsa-area teacher, Cyndi Ralston, went from the sidelines to the protest and now to the campaign trail, running to take on her incumbent state representative after his viral rant against the teachers.

Were it not for Trump, it might not be happening. Kathy Hoffman, who is in her fifth year of teaching in Arizona public schools, decided to run for state superintendent after watching Betsy DeVos’s shambolic Senate confirmation hearing. “That was really the tipping point, the day it hit me [that] we really need more educators to run,” she told The Intercept. “I’m sick of people who never taught in schools leading them, and that’s also what we have in Arizona.”

Over the past year and a half, Hoffman has marched for science, for women, for DREAMers, for gun control, and, she said, for “everything.” Most recently, she’s been rallying with the newly formed #RedForEd movement, a grass-roots effort in Arizona to better fund public schools.

Edwina Howard-Jack, a high school English teacher in Upshur County, West Virginia, has spent the past 18 years in the classroom. When West Virginia teachers walked off their jobs in late February, Howard-Jack made the two-hour drive to her state Capitol on eight of the nine strike days to protest in solidarity. “The labor organizing went right along with what I was already doing,” she explained, calling the election of Trump “a wake-up call” for her. Howard-Jack marched for women in January 2017, and, soon after, decided to found an Indivisible chapter in her hometown. “There have just been so many people who were apathetic before, but now want to get involved, and the teachers strike took it all to a whole new level,” she said.

Sarah Gump, a 33-year-old teacher in Kentucky, has taught for six years in the public school system. About two years ago, she got involved with Save Our Schools Kentucky, a grass-roots effort to protest the entrance of charters into their state. (Kentucky became the 44th state to allow the formation of charter schools in 2017.) This year, as Gump has taken some time off to care for her young daughter, she’s continued to organize for public education, but has also gotten more involved with the BlueGrass Activist Alliance, a hybrid Indivisible and Together We Will chapter.

In West Virginia, educators who went on strike won a 5 percent pay raise, the first pay increase in four years. In Oklahoma, teachers won raises of about $6,000, and more in education spending, though most of their other strike demands were not met. Last week in Arizona, after more than 1,000 schools participated in a statewide “walk-in” to call for more education money, Republican Gov. Doug Ducey announced that he could give teachers a 19 percent pay increase by 2020. Ducey’s offer revealed the pressure he faced to avoid a full-blown teachers strike, but so far, educators have voiced skepticism about the governor’s proposal. And in Kentucky, where teachers have been protesting pension and education cuts, activists convinced their legislators this weekend to halt spending on new charter schools through June 2020.

AS THE FOUR teachers movements all progress at different speeds — though summer vacation looms ahead for them all — educators and activists say they are under no illusion that the battles will end with the school year. Leaders have been urging for more attention to be paid to the upcoming midterm elections. “We’ll remember in November” has become the teachers’ rallying cry and warning to politicians.

The teachers in West Virginia are happy because they won this fight, but they know it’s not over,” said Richard Ojeda, a progressive state senator running for West Virginia’s 3rd Congressional District seat. “If you talk to any teacher out there, they’ll tell you 5 percent is not enough, and they’re absolutely planning on removing these people in our state leadership who fought their efforts.”

“Teachers are definitely getting more engaged in the upcoming election,” said Howard-Jack. “They’re really looking at who supports unions, who supports education, and our Indivisible chapter is the same. We’re holding candidate forums, endorsing candidates, writing op-eds. I haven’t seen anything like this energy in the past.”

In a statement released Thursday, Alicia Priest, president of the Oklahoma Education Association, declared that as classes resume, educators “must turn our attention towards the election season. Instead of making our case at the steps of the Capitol, we have the opportunity to make our voices heard at the ballot box. The state didn’t find itself in this school funding crisis overnight. We got here by electing the wrong people to office. No more. … This fight is not over just because the school bell rings once more and our members walk back into schools. We have created a movement and there’s no stopping us now.”

Liberals across the country are hoping for a massive “blue wave” this November. In deep red states, progressives are similarly hopeful, but they are also trying to temper expectations and promote some more modest electoral objectives.

“Our goal is balance,” said Anna Langthorn, chair of the Oklahoma Democratic Party, in a recent interview with The Oklahoman“We know that when our legislature is balanced, when our statewide offices are balanced, that we see more moderate governance and more effective governance, and so that’s what we’re aiming for. We want to break the supermajority in the House. … We want to win the governor’s race. And we want to pick up some seats in the Senate, too. The exact number may not be more than 10 in each house, but we saw that having 28 [Democratic] members made a real difference in budget negotiations, and if we can get to 34 members, that would make an even bigger difference.”

Christine Porter Marsh, a first-time candidate for office in Arizona and the state’s 2016 Teacher of the Year, says she also hopes her candidacy can bring some balance to her state’s red-leaning legislature.

“The Democrats are only two seats down from creating a tie in the Arizona Senate, and in our state, there is no tiebreaker,” she explained. “A tie loses. The seat I’m running for, against an incumbent Republican, is the most purple one in our state. If we can create a tie in the senate, not even a majority, it will be a game-changer for Arizona, because then everyone at the Capitol will have to negotiate compromises, and, to me, that is really motivating.”

Marsh, who has taught for 26 years in the classroom, says she decided to run for office after realizing a little less than a year ago that her lobbying efforts at the state Capitol just weren’t having much of an effect. “My generation of teachers, the ones who have been in it for a long time, we kind of dropped the ball,” she told The Intercept. “We were too focused on staying within the walls of our own classroom — which is so noble and wonderful and that’s what kids deserve — but so many years of doing that has created the situation in which we find ourselves, where students are directly and indirectly harmed by these bad policies.”

John Waldron, who has spent the past 20 years teaching high school social studies in Tulsa, Oklahoma, ran for office for the first time in 2016. He says his race was motivated by what he felt were terrible anti-education policies coming out of his state’s legislature. Waldron lost his race, but he feels more optimistic this time around, not only because he has increased name recognition, but also because of how much more progressive organizing there’s been in his state since Trump took office.

“Our county party has been revitalized as people got back into politics after the 2016 election, and I think if there was a Democrat in the White House, the mood in Oklahoma would be very different,” he told The Intercept. “With Trump, a lot of people who would be voting are staying home out of frustration, and a lot of people who would not be so active are now being quite active.”

Waldron knows his state is conservative, but says his legislature leans even more conservative than its voters, due to special interests funding far-right candidates in uncompetitive districts. While he doesn’t really expect a blue wave that wholly flips his state’s political balance this November, he says he’s optimistic about a decade-long process where voters “move the conversation from the far right, where it is now — where politicians want to arm teachers and to get government out of everything except a woman’s uterus — back to the center.”

According to Waldron, the highly covered Oklahoma teachers strike has “given a lot of oxygen” to his political campaign, because voters, he says, are now well familiar with the demands and frustrations of educators across the state. He says he’s been offering mentorship to other first-time teacher candidates running in Oklahoma.

“I think most of us would rather stay in the classroom, but what we’ve learned from the Oklahoma experience is that teaching is a political act,” said Waldron. “I think us teachers feel ready to handle the legislature, because we deal with teen-aged kids all the time.”

In Kentucky, 40 educators have also recently filed to run for office, organizing under the banner of A Few Good Women (And Men). David Allen, former Kentucky Education Association president, told The Intercept that the majority of these educator candidates are classroom teachers, but some work in higher education, and some have retired. “It’s a statewide kind of movement, if you will,” he said. “I’ve been pleased. We’re nothing without public education. Nothing.”

Teacher Unrest Spreads to Oklahoma

Originally published in The Intercept on March 6, 2018.
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Last summer Teresa Dank, a third-grade teacher in Tulsa, Oklahoma, gained national attention after she began panhandling to raise money for her classroom. Like many other teachers in a state with some of the lowest education spending in the country, Dank was at her wit’s end. Her frustration came to a head two weeks ago, following yet another failed legislative attempt to increase teacher pay. And so she started an online petition, asking for signatures from those who would support a walkout by teachers. Soon another Oklahoma teacher named Alberto Morejon launched a Facebook group to mobilize fellow educators for a walkout, quickly drawing tens of thousands of members.

The increasing momentum for a strike in Oklahoma comes as a strike by West Virginia teachers entered its ninth consecutive school day on Tuesday. State lawmakers, hoping to bring the strike to an end, reached a deal on Tuesday morning to raise all state employee salaries by 5 percent. Oklahoma’s 42,000 teachers make even less than their West Virginian counterparts; in 2016, the average Oklahoma teacher earned $45,276, a salary lower than that of teachers in every state except Mississippi. With no pay increases for Sooner State teachers in a decade, educators have been leaving for greener pastures, moving to neighboring states like Arkansas, New Mexico, Kansas, and Texas. Last May, Shawn Sheehan, Oklahoma’s 2016 Teacher of the Year, announced that he would be moving to Texas for more financial stability.

As it so often goes, when times are tough for teachers, times are also tough for students. Per-pupil spending in Oklahoma stands at $8,075, among the lowest in the country and lower than all of Oklahoma’s neighboring states. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities puts Oklahoma’s cuts to general education funding since the recession as the highest in the nation, with 28 percent of the state’s per-pupil funding cut over the last decade. Things have gotten so bad that nearly 100 school districts across the state hold classes just four days a week to save money.

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Strikes by Oklahoma school employees are technically illegal, but educators have found a legal work-around. If school districts shut down, then that’s a work stoppage that doesn’t involve teachers walking off the job. Many superintendents across the state have already come out in support of closing down schools if the teachers decide to move forward with their strike.

Teachers point to a four-day strike from nearly three decades ago, when more than half of Oklahoma educators stayed home from school. This successful 1990 protest prompted the legislature to raise teacher pay, institute class-size limits, and expand kindergarten offerings.

“Nothing else has worked over the last two to three years, so at this point teachers, parents, and community members are desperate for a solution,” said Amber England, a longtime Oklahoma education advocate. “This is what they’re thinking is the last resort. They don’t want to do it, but they really don’t feel like they have any other option.”

Why Aren’t Teachers Getting a Raise?

Educators were optimistic that things were going to change in 2016. The Republican-controlled legislature promised it’d pass a teacher pay increase, but in the end they failed to get anything done. Later that same year, a high-profile ballot initiative went before voters to increase the state sales tax by 1 percent, to give all teachers a $5,000 pay increase.

But that measure also ended up failing miserably, garnering just over 40 percent of the vote. Republicans in the state opposed taxes going up, and many Democrats also opposed the measure because a sales tax would have hit the poor the hardest.

In 2017, the legislature promised yet again to pass a teacher pay raise, adjourning in the end with nothing to show for it. A measure to raise teacher and state employee salaries funded by a tax on cigarettes, motor vehicle fuel, and beer failed 54-44 in October.

“Time after time, there’s just been terrible cuts, broken promises, and no legislative action or leadership,” England told The Intercept.

Just like in Kansas, Oklahoma’s leaders have been slashing taxes, finding that this then leaves them with less money to fund basic government services.

Aside from reducing income taxes for its wealthiest citizens in 2013, Oklahoma legislators voted in 2014 to extend major oil industry tax cuts that were set to expire in 2015. The drilling tax, known as the “gross production tax,” or GPT, had been set at 7 percent in the 1970s, but in the early 1990s, when horizontal drilling first came on the scene, the then-Democratic controlled legislature reduced it down to 1 percent, to help encourage experimentation with the new technology.

Mickey Thompson, who worked as the president of Oklahoma Independent Petroleum Association between 1991 and 2005, told The Intercept that the GPT reduction was important back then because horizontal drilling was “really new, untested, unproven, and expensive.” Thompson helped push for the tax reduction in the ’90s, but today has become one of the state’s most vocal advocates for raising it back up to 7 percent, because, he said, by now everyone knows that horizontal drilling easily pays for itself. “These cuts were never supposed to be permanent,” Thompson said.

The GPT was supposed to return back to 7 percent in 2015, but Republicans instead made the tax cuts permanent at 2 percent, a notably lower rate than other oil-producing states.

The Step Up Plan

Following all the legislative failures and the ballot measure failure, a group of influential business leaders in Oklahoma got together in December to formulate a last-ditch effort to push something through. The elite bipartisan coalition, dubbed Step Up Oklahoma, unveiled their proposals in January, advocating modest revenue hikes on GPT, motor fuel, cigarettes, and eliminating a few income tax deductions. Hailed as a grand compromise, the Step Up plan would have generated enough revenue to give all teachers a $5,000 pay raise. All five of Oklahoma’s former living governors endorsed the plan, as did the state’s teachers union 

But when legislators voted on the package in mid-February, it too failed, with 17 Democrats and 18 Republicans voting against the measure. Some Republicans argued this was Oklahoma’s last real shot at reaching a compromise this year, but other Democrats said they don’t buy that this is the best deal they could reach.

Rep. Forrest Bennett, a first-term Democrat representing Oklahoma City, was among those who voted against the Step Up plan.

“There was a hell of a lot of pressure on us to pass it, and I’ve gotten a lot of shit for voting no, but this package was pretty flawed from the start,” he told The Intercept. Bennett noted that aside from teacher pay increases, the Step Up deal contained a number of regressive taxes and pushed only for doubling the GPT up to 4 percent.

In October, a new nonprofit, Restore Oklahoma Now, formed to push for a 2018 ballot measure that would hike the GPT back up to 7 percent and direct the majority of new revenue to schools and teachers. That effort is being led by Thompson, the former OIPA president.

“We felt we needed to get GPT to at least 5 percent,” Bennett explained. “We were being dictated to by this private business owner group, and as long as that 7 percent ballot initiative is looming, we think we will have more opportunities to push for alternatives.”

England, who had been helping the Oklahoma Education Association mobilize support for the Step Up plan, emphasized that it’s been increasingly difficult to reach any sort of bipartisan agreement. “Compromise is not the politically correct position anymore,” she told The Intercept.

Strike As a Last Resort

For many teachers, the legislature’s failure to pass the Step Up plan was the last straw. Dank launched her petition a week after the failed vote, capitalizing on the frustration of thousands of teachers whose classrooms have been underfunded for far too long.

Different dates are floating around for a potential strike. One scenario is to strike on April 2, the same time that students are scheduled to take their mandatory standardized tests. Failing to take those tests could mean Oklahoma sacrifices millions of dollars in federal funds. Organizers are calling this the “nuclear option.” Another possibility is to shut down schools the week following spring break, which would be the week before standardized testing. The Oklahoma Education Association plans to hold a press conference Thursday afternoon to unveil a “detailed revenue package and a statewide closure strategy.” NewsOK, a local news outlet, reported that nearly 80 percent of respondents to an online survey administered by the Oklahoma Educators Association voiced support for school closures to force lawmakers to increase educational investments.

Thompson, the leader behind the GPT ballot initiative, worries a teacher walkout will damage public support for educators in the state. “I think a majority of teachers understand what we’re trying to do [with our initiative], but their morale is very low, and they are beyond frustrated,” he said. He acknowledges, though, that his concerns “are falling on deaf ears” and that “teachers are ready to try anything.”

For his part, Thompson thinks the ballot initiative he’s leading stands a better shot at passage than the failed 2016 penny tax. “Teachers have gone two more years without a pay raise, and the public has been talking about it for all this time now,” he said. “There is just more public support for a teacher raise than two years ago.”

Thompson also thinks the fact that his proposed ballot initiative would raise revenue without raising taxes on everyone else will help secure its passage. “Conservatives don’t want to raise state sales tax, liberals don’t want a regressive tax, but our deal is not a sales tax — it’s a tax on the oil and gas industry, trying to take away their sweetheart deal that was passed 20 years ago,” he said.

Their ballot initiative isn’t a done deal yet, though; they haven’t even begun collecting the necessary 123,000 signatures. Last week, they defended their ballot initiative at Oklahoma’s Supreme Court, and now they’re waiting for the court’s approval to move forward.

“The court can take as long as they please to give us a decision on whether we’re valid or whether we’re kicked to the curb,” Thompson explained. “We’re not officially a ballot initiative until we get their approval, but we’re feeling confident.”

Democrats remain convinced that all the mounting pressure will create more opportunities for lawmakers to push forward alternative revenue packages this legislative season. Bennett said the threat of a 7 percent GPT ballot initiative, a statewide teacher walkout, and a potential blue wave for Democrats across the country in November, will help keep pressure up in the legislature.

“The Step Up coalition made people feel like their deal was the last shot, but it’s not,” he said. “What they did do was engage a lot of people, and now a lot more are really frustrated and are paying attention.”