After nine days, the Oklahoma teacher walkout is ending, the state's largest teachers union said on Thursday. But teachers across the state pledged to continue fighting for more school funding and higher pay.
"We have created a movement and there's no stopping us now," Oklahoma Education Association President Alicia Priest said Thursday. "This fight is not over just because the school bell rings once more and our members walk back into schools."
The OEA decided to end the walkout with $479 million in funding for the next school year -- less than what they'd hoped to achieve, Priest said in a news conference. After days of negotiations with lawmakers in both the Oklahoma House and Senate, it became clear that "Senate Republicans won't budge an inch on any more revenue for public education," she said.
"We need to face reality," Priest told reporters. "Despite tens of thousands of people filling the Capitol and spilling out onto the grounds of this Capitol for nine days, we have seen no significant legislative movement since last Friday."
'Time to go back to school'
Priest said Oklahoma teachers had secured a victory even though the most significant gains were achieved before the beginning of the walkout. Before teachers walked out on April 2, Gov. Mary Fallin signed a bill giving teachers a $6,100 raise. The OEA had called passage of the bill a "truly historic moment," but said it didn't go far enough. It wanted that figure to be $10,000. Fallin also signed a bill that raised education funding over the next fiscal year by $50 million. The teachers' union also wanted that number to be higher.
Fallin, who compared the striking teachers to "a teenage kid that wants a better car," said she was glad teachers were returning to school.
"They've been out for two weeks, and it's time for them to get back to school," Fallin said in a statement. "Student learning at schools affected by the strike has been halted for nearly two weeks at a critical time in the academic year when federal and state testing requirements need to be completed."
The Oklahoma educators' walkout came on the heels of another walkout in West Virginia, where Gov. Jim Justice signed a bill giving teachers a 5% pay raise after nine days. In Kentucky, teachers are preparing to rally Friday at the state Capitol in Frankfort, and in Arizona, educators are weighing a walkout of their own.
The decision to end the Oklahoma walkout was met with mixed reaction from teachers, some of whom said OEA ended the walkout prematurely.
"The OEA doesn't get to decide when I'm finished," said middle school choir teacher Renee Jerden, who said she was inspired by the walkout to run for Senate. "I feel like it's a cop-out -- we have let them win by showing them they can behave however they want and we'll eventually get tired and go home."
Oklahoma teachers said additional spending was needed to improve deteriorating school facilities and outdated school supplies. Many said they paid for classroom supplies with their own money while working multiple jobs to make ends meet.
The OEA had been polling its members throughout the walkout, Priest said. By Thursday, 70% of respondents indicated they were unsure of continuing the walkout, she said.
But some teachers said they were not polled before the final decision to end the walkout.
"I'm disappointed in the pullout of support from our teacher-led movement to secure more funding for our schools before a consensus was reached through a majority of polling efforts," said Jessica Lightle, a teacher at Puterbaugh Middle School in McAlester, Oklahoma. "I am, however, energized and motivated by the community of teachers, parents and students who have vowed to keep fighting for a better education for our children. This is a long road to recovery and Oklahomans have actively engaged to heal our system. I look forward to the future."
Her husband, McAlester High School English teacher Jason Lightle, said complacency had allowed the state education system to deteriorate, and gains were modest compared to the need. But he hopes the energy of the walkout will change that.
"My hope is that this walkout results in citizens becoming more engaged with their representatives at all levels so that the state of Oklahoma will become citizen-led, just as this walkout was teacher-led, and improvements can be made across the board. Complacency simply cannot be allowed any longer."
Teachers pledge to run for office
Efforts to obtain more funding will continue away from the Capitol, Priest said. The OEA will be supporting its members and candidates who are running for office during the midterm elections against those who opposed funding Oklahoma's schools.
The number of teachers vowing to run for office was one sign of the walkout's success, said Kelly Craig, a fifth grade teacher in Oklahoma City. "While it's disheartening that the walk-out ended, the walk-out forced change that Oklahomans will see this November," she said. "Without the walk-out, this wouldn't have occurred!"
Fourth grade math and science teacher Carri Hicks brought her students to protests at the Capitol. She called the decision to end the walkout "bittersweet." But she said the experience galvanized her and others to run for office.
"Advocacy levels are at an all time high, and we have to make sure that momentum continues well into the next decade."
Yukon High School teacher Jonathan Moy blamed legislators for their unwillingness to budge. But he said he's ready to go back to school.
"I told my students before this began that Oklahoma legislators have shown that education isn't a priority. Now the nation has proof of this," he said. "It's disappointing, but I think we've accomplished as much as we can. The kids are the priority."