For teachers, the goal of a rally Monday to raise educator salaries by $5,000 was not just for themselves but for their students.
“If kids are better educated, they contribute to the economy in a better way” said Gabriel Gonzalez, a teacher at Roosevelt Middle School in Oklahoma City.
Gonzalez and a half-dozen other Roosevelt teachers cornered their state representative, Shane Stone (D-OKC), in a fifth-floor hallway hours before the House considered HB 1033XX, the main revenue bill of the Step Up Oklahoma plan that failed to receive 76 House votes. Disappointed to learn that Stone would be voting against the bill, the teachers pushed back with questions and statements of their own.
“Teachers are leaving Oklahoma, and it’s the pay that’s driving them away,” said Jeanie Cox, a Roosevelt instructor. “It’s been 10 years. Where’s the better plan?”
Stone spoke with the teachers for more than 20 minutes, rattling off responses and pitching the House Democrats’ Restoring Oklahoma Plan, which he apologized for not being able to recite.
“We’re moving in the right direction, as far as the mentality of the state and the mentality of the people of the state, but I’m going to be a ‘no’ on the Step Up plan today,” Stone said. “The Step Up plan is a very regressive tax plan. You guys work at Roosevelt, I know you see the neighborhoods around Roosevelt that I represent. Those people can’t afford any more burden than they already have. Those are the people I have to represent first and foremost. I do want to make sure we get a teacher pay raise. I think that, this session, we can get that done, and there are a lot of bills outside of Step Up to get there.”
The teachers from Roosevelt Middle School were among roughly 1,000 teachers — and other advocates — at the Capitol on Monday to urge legislator support of the Step Up Oklahoma bills that would draw new state revenue and raise the minimum teacher salary schedule.
But the Step Up plan’s main revenue bill failed Monday afternoon by a 63-35 vote.
Frustrated with pay
Prior to Monday’s vote, teachers from across the state said they are ready for a pay raise to improve living conditions for themselves and education in Oklahoma.
“We don’t think that raising the cigarette tax is necessarily a bad thing,” said Felix Linden, a Roosevelt teacher who spoke to Stone.
Other teachers said they are frustrated by the stagnation of educator salaries.
“I have taught for 18 years and have gotten one raise. That was 16 years ago,” said Lucinda Willis, a preschool teacher at Locust Grove Early Learning Center. “It’s time. It’s overdue.”
“In three years, we can’t afford to live here,” said Anna Rivera, a Roosevelt Middle School teacher. “The cost of living is not cheap.”
Teachers in Oklahoma have not seen a raise to the state’s minimum salary schedule in 10 years. The Step Up Oklahoma Plan was the most recent effort to raise teacher pay and education funding. Voters rejected state questions in 2010 and 2016 that would have increased the state’s education funding.
“We had people come by the school to talk about [the state questions] on both sides of the issue to educate students,” Linden said of State Question 779, which failed on the 2016 general election ballot. “But that still failed miserably, and some districts moved to four-day weeks. That makes our state look horrible.”
Cindy Brown, a retired educator and state employee, said not all parts of the Step Up Plan are good, but that the Monday rally at the Capitol was crucial in raising awareness.
“Get the momentum going — that’s the goal today,” she said. “The message is, ‘We’re paying attention.’”
Other teachers said they are committed to continue fighting for a pay raise and increased funding.
“We’ll keep trying,” said Kyle Hawkins, a teacher at Edmond Santa Fe High School. “Education is the forefront of the future of Oklahoma. We’ve lost too many [teachers] already.”
‘It’s got to be frustrating as a teacher’
The next opportunity for teachers to fight for improved education funding remains to be seen. Step Up Oklahoma could be reconsidered, and other options could be introduced. State Question 795 looms on the horizon, which would provide a teacher pay hike if it receives enough signatures to make the ballot and is approved by voters.
Charlie Swinton, senior vice president of public affairs and corporate trust at BancFirst, was also at the Capitol on Monday to express support for the Step Up plan. He similarly acknowledged the importance of education in Oklahoma.
“The school system is training our future employees,” he said. “We only grow if our communities grow.”
Prior to the vote, Swinton said he was “cautiously optimistic” that the Step Up revenue bill would pass.
“It’s got to be frustrating as a teacher,” Swinton said. “If it doesn’t pass today, [teachers] are going to become more cynical about the Capitol and the Legislature.”