Ben Felder, The Oklahoman
No matter what happens this week in the state Legislature, Alicia Priest, president of the Oklahoma Education Association, said teachers would walk out of schools and be at the state Capitol on April 2.
However, Priest wasn’t sure what would happen on April 3, especially if a teacher pay raise bill approved by the House makes it to the governor’s desk.
“What I’m saying is April 2 there will be teachers here, they may be saying ‘thank you,’ they may be pushing for additional funding,” Priest said Tuesday afternoon. “I’m not going to speak for every teacher. I speak for the Oklahoma Education Association.”
“We will have to hear from our membership before we make that decision (about April 3),” Priest added.
The Oklahoma Education Association has called for a statewide teachers strike to begin on April 2 unless state lawmakers approve over $800 million in additional funding, including a $10,000 teacher pay raise.
On Monday, the House approved a series of tax increases that would raise an estimated $447 million to pay for a salary hike for teachers, school support personnel, and state employees. Lawmakers said the bill would fund an average teacher pay raise of more than $6,000.
The bill still requires support by the state Senate and governor.
But the House vote represented a historic approval of tax hikes that achieved necessary bipartisan support.
“I think considering the current makeup of the House, that a package like that getting passed is unbelievable, especially with the 5 percent gross production tax, which everyone said couldn’t be done,” said Rep. Forrest Bennett, D-Oklahoma City, who voted for the bill.
Following Monday’s vote, Priest said more needed to be done. But she declined to use some of the absolutist language of the past when she has said anything short of the OEA’s demands would result in an indefinite teachers strike.
“Our ask is our ask and we will be (at the Capitol) if our ask hasn’t been met on April 2,” Priest said. “What passed through the House yesterday is a step in the right direction. We’ve had historic cuts, and it is going to take historic funding to make sure those cuts are repaired.”
Senate Majority Floor Leader Greg Treat said the House bill could be voted on as early as Wednesday, but acknowledged tax hikes on hotels and oil and gas production were under scrutiny by some senators.
While the outcome of the House bill and its impact on a teacher walkout remains to be seen, many education advocacy groups praised the vote.
“I applaud state representatives for taking an important first step toward a long-term funding plan for public schools that includes competitive teacher pay,” said Shawn Hime, executive director of the Oklahoma State School Boards Association. “Our teachers, students, and schools need this. This plan addresses the most immediate crisis in our classrooms: the shrinking pool of educators willing to teach in Oklahoma.”
State schools Superintendent Joy Hofmeister called it “a show of admirable bipartisanship to strengthen public education.”
“These measures finally ensure Oklahoma’s dedicated, hardworking public schoolteachers receive well-deserved, competitive pay,” Hofmeister said in a statement. “In addition, the bills provide desperately needed resources for textbooks and support staff who perform vital services for our students.”
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Ben Felder, The Oklahoman