Walk­out was non­par­ti­san, but pol­i­tics came into play

The Oklahoman (Sunday) - - METRO | STATE - BY BEN FELDER Staff Writer bfelder@oklahoman.com

As teaches scur­ried around the sec­ond floor of the state Capi­tol ro­tunda on Thurs­day, Aaron Baker strummed his ukulele, singing “Union Maid,” one of the many pro-union songs writ­ten by Ok­la­homa­na­tive Woody Guthrie.

“I’m stick­ing to the union, ‘til the day I die,” sang Baker, who is an eighth-grade his­tory teacher.

The song of al­le­giance to or­ga­nized la­bor took place inside a build­ing with one of the most con­ser­va­tive leg­is­la­tures in the nation, where an­tiu­nion leg­is­la­tion has, at times, found wide sup­port.

But the Capi­tol was filled last week with thou­sands of teach­ers who had fol­lowed the call of the Ok­la­homa Ed­u­ca­tion As­so­ci­a­tion, the state’s largest teach­ers union, de­mand­ing more school fund­ing.

The threat of the walk­out likely pushed law­mak­ers to ap­prove nearly $500 mil­lion in new taxes for schools and teacher pay, de­spite the Leg­is­la­ture’s tax-averse his­tory.

The teacher walk­out, which be­gan April 2 and ended two weeks later, in­cluded a va­ri­ety of sto­ry­lines.

For some, it was a push back on con­ser­va­tive pol­i­tics, in­clud­ing a pro­nounce­ment from The At­lantic mag­a­zine that “The Red-State re­volt” had spread to Ok­la­homa, ac­cord­ing to one of its head­lines.

“I don’t think the walk­out was par­ti­san in its build up,” said Anna Langth­orn, chair of the Ok­la­homa Demo­cratic Party. “But I think it has be­come more par­ti­san ev­ery sin­gle day as Democrats are the ones who are fa­vor­ably re­spond­ing to these teach­ers.”

Langth­orn pointed to Democrats push­ing for a vote to re­peal the cap­i­tal gains tax de­duc­tion, which many teach­ers sup­ported.

Not only did Repub­li­can lead­er­ship refuse to take up the vote, but some Repub­li­can mem­bers frus­trated teach­ers with their re­sponse, in­clud­ing Gov. Mary Fallin, who com­pared teach­ers to spoiled teenagers look­ing for a new car.

But to call the teacher walk­out an anti-Repub­li­can demon­stra­tion could ig­nore the fact that most teach­ers are reg­is­tered Repub­li­cans, ac­cord­ing to a 2016 com­par­i­son of teacher li­censes and voter reg­is­tra­tion, con­ducted by Sooner Poll.

Then again, there are some Repub­li­can teach­ers who say their party

has an im­age prob­lem when it comes to pub­lic ed­u­ca­tion.

“I feel like every­body looks at Repub­li­cans as not pro-ed­u­ca­tion,” said Sher­rie Con­ley, a Repub­li­can can­di­date in House District 20, who is also a teacher. “I want ev­ery­one to know that Repub­li­cans care about ed­u­ca­tion, too.”

Con­ley was one of sev­eral teach­ers to file for state of­fice last week as the fo­cus for many ed­u­ca­tion ad­vo­cates shifted to the Novem­ber elec­tions.

The teach­ers who filed for of­fice in­cluded both Repub­li­cans and Democrats.

How­ever, if any part of last week’s walk­out was a pro­gres­sive push­back on years of con­ser­va­tive lead­er­ship, the counter punch could come in the form of a bal­lot ini­tia­tive ask­ing vot­ers to re­verse the tax hikes ap­proved by law­mak­ers last month, which funded a $6,100 teacher pay raise.

Last week, former U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn joined a group called Ok­la­homa Tax­pay­ers Unite at a news con­fer­ence to say the tax hikes were harm­ful to the state.

“There are a whole lot of other ways to pay for a teacher pay in­crease than what we have just done,” Coburn said. “It’s easy to pass a tax in­crease, it’s easy to spend other people’s money.”

While Democrats hope for a change elec­tion, Coburn made his own pro­nounce­ment that the Leg­is­la­ture needed more anti-tax mem­bers.

Pam Pol­lard, chair of the Ok­la­homa Repub­li­can Party, said she ex­pects an in­creased fo­cus on ed­u­ca­tion this elec­tion sea­son.

“The teach­ers forced ed­u­ca­tion to the top of the line, and rightly so, be­cause the schools were des­per­ate for money,” Pol­lard said.

She said Repub­li­can can­di­dates can point to the tax in­crease pack­age for teacher pay as a suc­cess. But she also be­lieves many Ok­la­homa vot­ers would re­ject another ma­jor tax hike.

“We are not go­ing to con­tinue to put more money onto a sys­tem that needs to be looked at closer,” Pol­lard said. “The Repub­li­can plan has been to con­tinue on with the re­forms we have made. We’ve re­formed work­ers comp, tort re­form, pen­sion re­form ... those things al­low us to put more money into ed­u­ca­tion.”

Democrats might hope to put more pres­sure on Repub­li­cans in the Novem­ber elec­tion. But some Repub­li­can can­di­dates will first face a June pri­mary, where vot­ers are more tax averse.

“If I’ve got a bucket with holes in it, I’ve got to plug the holes be­fore I put new rev­enue (in it),” said Kevin Stitt, a Repub­li­can can­di­date for gov­er­nor, who said he wouldn’t have signed last month’s tax pack­age.

When the Ok­la­homa Ed­u­ca­tion As­so­ci­a­tion called off its walk­out on Thurs­day, it said the fo­cus had shifted to the Novem­ber elec­tions, which in­cluded try­ing to stop a pos­si­ble bal­lot ini­tia­tive that would undo the teacher pay raise.

“They are so mad at what we have achieved that they are al­ready try­ing to take it back and we can­not let them win,” said Ali­cia Pri­est, pres­i­dent of the Ok­la­homa Ed­u­ca­tion As­so­ci­a­tion.

Many teach­ers said the only way to make the walk­out lead to fur­ther change was to af­fect the elec­tions.

“I think the walk­out is go­ing to have a huge im­pact on the elec­tions,” said Ch­eryl Ar­nall, a first-grade teacher from Tahle­quah. “I think it has awak­ened 40,000 ed­u­ca­tors across the state of Ok­la­homa.”

How­ever, if any part of last week’s walk­out was a pro­gres­sive push­back on years of con­ser­va­tive lead­er­ship, the counter punch could come in the form of a bal­lot ini­tia­tive ask­ing vot­ers to re­verse the tax hikes ap­proved by law­mak­ers last month, which funded a $6,100 teacher pay raise.

[PHOTO BY NATE BILLINGS, THE OKLAHOMAN]

Re­tired Staff Sgt. Ted Krey writes the name of a fa­vorite teacher on a sign held by Blake Coward on the 11th day of a walk­out by Ok­la­homa teach­ers on the south side of the state Capi­tol in Ok­la­homa City on April 12. Coward has been at the Capi­tol...

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