OKLAHOMA CITY — Waving colorful signs and chanting, thousands of teachers converged on the state Capitol Monday to press lawmakers for increased education spending.
Many Oklahoma educators expressed gratitude that lawmakers wrangled together enough support last week to raise more than $447 million in taxes to fund permanent average $6,100 raises.
But, they said much work remains to fully — and adequately — fund public schools statewide.
Teachers said class sizes are growing, and education funding isn’t keeping up. There aren’t enough supplies, and textbooks are falling apart. Oklahoma is struggling to keep qualified educators in classrooms because of low pay. And others said they’re not sure if they trust lawmakers to keep their promises to continually finance raises and education funding increases.
State lawmakers hoped to placate teachers by passing the first tax increases in more than a decade. That legislation will pump $50 million more in increased classroom spending and fund raises for teachers and support staff.
Under the plan, Oklahoma would move from last to second in regional average teacher pay, education officials said. The average Oklahoma teacher made $44,921 last year, according to the state Department of Education. The regional average was $48,450.
More experienced classroom teachers would receive an even larger raise in Oklahoma. For example, certified teachers with 25 years experience could see their pay increase by nearly $8,000 to top out at $51,232, according to a budget analysis.
The tax package increases the gross production tax charged to oil and gas drillers. It increases the state’s gasoline tax by 3 cents and the diesel tax by 6 cents. Consumers will pay $1 more per pack of cigarettes. Lawmakers also plan to cap the amount of itemized deductions Oklahomans can claim on their taxes.
In addition to the raises, state lawmakers have already passed next year’s education budget, which increased education spending to $2.9 billion — a nearly 20 percent increase from current levels.
Lawmakers praised the moves as positive steps forward for Oklahoma’s education system.
Despite those actions, Oklahoma teachers still walked out of school Monday, prompting statewide school closures.
“I’ve been teaching 19 years and class sizes have gotten bigger over the years. Enough’s enough,” said Jeff Janzen, a 19-year educator who teaches middle school social studies in Edmond. “I would hope that they can find some more funding.”
Janzen was waving a sign that read: “Hey Mary, education funding shouldn’t be historic, it should be normal,” in a message to the state’s Republican Gov. Mary Fallin.
Mary Ryan, a 22-year educator who teaches middle school computer and science technology in Edmond, Oklahoma, said her average class size is around 30 students, and she teaches as many as 180 children a day.
“There’s no way I can give 180 kids my full attention and know what’s going on in their lives and love them like I should,” Ryan said.
She said the state’s largest industries — like wind — should be paying their fair share just like oil.
“We’re fighting for our students and more funding for our classrooms,” said Crystal Hendricks, a third-grade teacher in Tahlequah, Oklahoma. “We’re hopeful. We’re very hopeful.”
Hendricks and her colleagues carpooled from Tahlequah and plan to spend the night so they can rally again Tuesday. She said teachers, who had to park off-site, waited as long as three hours to catch shuttles to the Capitol.
It wasn’t clear how long teachers planned to walk out of schools and rally at the Capitol. The Oklahoma Education Association, which is the state’s largest teacher’s union, said it would evaluate each evening this week whether the rally would continue the next day.
CeCelia Garringer, of Enid, Oklahoma, said she took the day off from her job as a surgical technologist to rally for her district’s teachers. She carried a sign that read “Teachers made your job possible.”
“Not only do I hope that we can get a raise for our teachers, but we need more funding for our education,” she said. “I hope that they realize that teachers aren’t just here for a raise. They’re here for the kids. They’re here for our future.”
Garringer, who has a 4-year-old daughter, plans to enroll her in Pre-K classes this coming school year.
“I want her to have a very good education so then that way she can become whatever she desires, and she won’t be held back just because someone decides her education isn’t worth funding,” she said.
State Rep. Jacob Rosecrants, D-Norman, Oklahoma, said education supporters need to muster larger crowds because some of his colleagues think “they can dodge this bullet and be good to go.”
“It’s going to take massive people power to (get) anything done,” the former public school teacher said. “I’m talking multiple days and not just today.”
And while lawmakers welcomed educators, some cautioned that little momentum remains to raise new taxes after House and Senate lawmakers narrowly garnered the three-fourths majority needed to pass last week’s package.
In addition to education, lawmakers need to work on funding prisons, mental health, health care, human services, transportation and public safety, said state Rep. Scott Fetgatter, R-Okmulgee, Oklahoma, who attended the rally.
“There’s a whole plethora of different things that we have to get under control as a state,” he said. “So right now, we’ve got what we can do at the current moment, but we have to keep striving to be better in Oklahoma as far as how we govern.”
Janelle Stecklein covers the Oklahoma Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites. Reach her at email@example.com.
What the Legislature’s education funding measures do:
• Appropriates nearly $2.9 billion for education in the upcoming fiscal year — a nearly 20 percent increase over current spending.
• Will spend about 53 cents of every dollar on education, up from 49 cents.
• Gives classroom teachers an average $6,100 raise at a cost of $353 million.
• Increases overall school spending by $50 million — of that $33 million must be spent on textbooks.
• Spends $52 million on raises for school support staff; the average employee will see a $1,250 increase in pay.
• And lawmakers will allocate $63 million for public employee raises:
State employees who make less than $40,000 per year will receive a $2,000 raise; employees making $40,000-$50,000 will get $1,500; employees making $50,000 to $60,000 will get $1,000; and $60,000-plus employees receive $750.
Source: State Rep. Kevin Wallace, House appropriations chair