On Feb. 28, high school track coach and government teacher Bon Bennett stepped up to the microphone at the community center in Bartlesville, Okla., as hundreds of parents, students and teachers sat rapt in attention.
An education crisis was brewing across Oklahoma, and the district’s school board had called a special meeting to hear from the community. By some measures, Oklahoma’s teachers are the lowest-paid in the nation, and Bennett drew the audience’s attention to the massive statewide teachers strike that had just launched in West Virginia.
“Now let’s just take one second and digest that. West Virginia teachers walked out — and they make more than us!” Bennett said, his voice rising, according to a video of the meeting. “West Virginia!”
To fix the situation, Oklahomans should “take to the streets, and they have to demand change,” Bennett said. To the listening school board, Bennett said, “I support the suspension of school, hopefully on a statewide basis,” to allow teachers to go on strike.
Bennett wasn’t alone. Behind him, the crowd whooped and applauded.
Across Oklahoma, teachers, labor organizers, parents and school boards are taking steps to follow West Virginia in launching their first major strike since 1990 to demand higher pay from the state Legislature.
On Thursday, the Oklahoma Education Assn. teachers union plans to unveil a shutdown strategy and a proposed funding measure to pressure lawmakers to boost spending for education in the state. The union said 80% of more than 10,000 respondents to an online survey backed closing schools in support of a walkout.
Association President Alicia Priest said the union was “working toward” bringing all districts on board with a possible walkout, as in West Virginia, though she said “not everyone is on board yet, and that’s OK.”
“The goal is not a walkout,” Priest said. “The goal is for us to have funding for public education to best meet the needs of our students.”
Next week, teachers in Tulsa, one of the state’s biggest school districts, plan to engage in a work-to-rule protest — a labor slowdown in which workers do only the minimum amount of work required. They have the backing of top administrators, who said they plan to support a teacher walkout and school shutdowns “should they become necessary.”
“We have a really hard time holding on to our wonderful folks and recruiting others,” said Deborah Gist, superintendent of Tulsa Public Schools, which has 3,000 educators and 40,000 students. “We lost 22% of our teachers last year, and over the last couple of years, more than 30% in total.”
The public, including business leaders and parents, “knows what a huge problem we have here in our state and are ready to do something bout it,” Gist said.
In the space of just a few days, 55,000 people have joined an Oklahoma teacher’s private Facebook group titled “Oklahoma Teacher Walkout - The Time Is Now!” where educators have been discussing the basics of how a walkout would work. How would a walkout affect mandatory testing? Would teachers still get paid?
“If this does, in fact, happen [fingers-crossed emoji], I’d like to work on somehow getting food to kiddos who rely on school for their meals!!” one third-grade teacher wrote. “If any of you have any ideas, connections, etc... PM [private message] me!!”
Talk of a possible walkout had been brewing for months, even before the West Virginia strike, as lawmakers struggled to pass funding measures that might raise teacher pay.
The average salary of Oklahoma teachers in 2016 was $42,760, which falls several thousand dollars below the average salaries in neighboring states such as Texas ($51,890), Arkansas ($48,218) and Kansas ($47,755), according to the most recently available data from the National Education Assn. The highest-paid teachers in the NEA rankings are in New York, earning an average of $79,152. California teachers, at No. 2, earn an average of $77,179.
The salary disparities have led Oklahoma educators to flee to higher-paying jobs in neighboring states. Oklahoma’s 2016 teacher of the year, Shawn Sheehan, moved to Texas, where he and his wife — also a teacher — expect to make a combined $40,000 more a year than they made in Oklahoma.
A survey last fall of 250 teachers who left Oklahoma schools said most left because of poor pay, and they took jobs that paid them $19,000 more a year on average. Twenty-four percent still lived in the state but commuted across state lines to higher-paying jobs, said the survey’s author, Theresa Cullen, an associate professor at the University of Oklahoma.
“They’re just tired of fighting,” Cullen said. “They’ve lost hope.”
In their place, schools have been plugging the gaps with undertrained teachers who are given emergency teaching certificates in order to hurry them into schools.
During the 2011-2012 school year, the state of Oklahoma granted 30 emergency teaching certificates to new teachers who had not satisfied their certification requirements. This year, that number exploded to 1,917 teachers as districts struggled to retain teachers who have left for higher-paying jobs.
Dozens of Oklahoma schools, particularly near the Texas and Arkansas borders, have also cut back to four days of school a week to cut costs but also to better compete for teachers who might be interested in having three-day weekends.
Larry Cagle, 54, who teaches an Advanced Placement course at Edison Preparatory School in Tulsa, said he makes $34,500 a year to work at one of the best schools in the state — less than he could make at a nearby QuikTrip gas station.
“I am struggling to pay my bills,” said Cagle, who has launched a protest group calling for a strike. “A student graduating from my class can become a QuikTrip full-time employee a year, two years later, making more than me.” He compared the funding crisis to the lead-poisoning crisis in Flint, Mich. “Are we Flint? Is this the Flint version of education for Oklahoma? And when does it stop?”
Republican Gov. Mary Fallin said Monday that she was frustrated that lawmakers have not passed pay increases for teachers but stopped short of expressing support for a walkout.
“If teachers feel they have to protest, I hope they do so over spring break,” Fallin said in a statement to The Times on Monday. “However, there’s still time to develop a pay raise this session, and I would encourage teachers to contact their state representatives, especially those who voted against measures that included teacher pay raises, and plead their case with them because all revenue bills must start in the House of Representatives.”
In Bartlesville, population 36,647, administrators discussed the possibility of needing to plan for a walkout during a school meeting in September, and talks revived after the Legislature failed to pass a funding measure in February.
Supt. Chuck McCauley emailed a survey to other superintendents around the state asking them whether their communities might support a walkout, and he found that there was interest.
“If somebody has a better idea, we’re all for it,” McCauley said. “The reason ‘right now’ is so drastic — we are hiring people that we would not have interviewed a few short years ago, and it’s impacting the level of instruction for our kids.”
On Wednesday, McCauley plans to meet with other superintendents around the state to get a sense of the breadth of support for possible school closures to support a walkout.
“Every district, their boards may or may not choose to participate,” McCauley said. But in Bartlesville, “our board, our community, our teachers, our parents — they’re definitely urging us to consider this option.”
Matt Pearce is a national reporter for The Times. Follow him on Twitter at @mattdpearce.