Oklahoma Teachers End Strike, Raises in Hand

OKLAHOMA CITY (CN) — Oklahoma teachers ended their statewide strike Thursday after nine days, claiming victory in getting a raise and more funding for public schools but acknowledging that additional concessions from lawmakers are unlikely.

Oklahoma Education Association President Alicia Priest said the teachers’ efforts and “overwhelming support” from the public brought $479 million more for education. She said 77 percent of the union’s members doubted any more funding would come if the strike continued.

“Nevertheless, the Legislature has fallen well short of their responsibility to Oklahoma’s students,” Priest said at a Thursday afternoon news conference. “The presence and persistence of Oklahoma educators and supporters have brought the largest pay raise in state history to teachers, a line-item raise for support professionals for only the second time in history, and $70 million in recurring revenue for classrooms.”

Oklahoma teachers walked out after enduring no pay raises and repeated education funding cuts since 2008. State lawmakers failed to prevent the strike when they passed measures two weeks ago to raise teacher salaries by $6,100 a year and support staff salaries by $1,250, and education funding increases of $50 million. The concessions were only a fraction of what the teachers wanted, so the strike went ahead.

On the fifth day of the strike, Priest offered to end it if the Legislature passed bills eliminating a capital gains tax exemption and Governor Mary Fallin vetoed a bill repealing a hotel and motel tax. Lawmakers have held their ground since, refusing to give any more concessions and saying the budget for the year is set. Priest said that during negotiations with the Oklahoma House and Senate, Senate Republicans refused to “budge an inch” on finding any more revenue.

“We need to face reality,” Priest said. “In spite of tens of thousands of people filing the capital and spilling out onto the grounds of this capitol for nine days, we have seen no significant legislative movement since last Friday.”

Fallin, a Republican, has endured heavy criticism for supporting tax cuts and business subsidies that have eroded state agency budgets. She angered teachers last week when she compared their demands to teenagers who “want a better car.”

Defiant teachers spent the rest of the strike loudly jingling their keys in the capitol, chanting: “Where is our car?”

Reporters pressed Priest on what the strike accomplished, as the bulk of concessions were signed into law before the strike began. Priest lauded the passage of two bills last Friday that raised $40 million in additional revenue for schools. One expands tribal gaming in the state to include games with a ball or dice, while the other imposes sales tax on certain internet sales.

The strike matches the length of a similar walkout in March by West Virginia teachers over low pay. That strike was called off after lawmakers passed a bill giving teachers and all other state employees a 5 percent raise.

Kentucky teachers have protested for two weeks, and threatened to strike over a Republican proposal to cut their retirement benefits. Kentucky lawmakers quietly attached the cut to a sewage bill at the last minute, which prevented any public feedback.

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