AP NEWS

Participants of Oklahoma’s statewide teacher walkout reflect

April 7, 2019

TULSA, Okla. (AP) — The response from his fellow teachers was exactly what Jim Douthat had been hoping for.

“It sounds,” he said, as he wrapped up the meeting, “like we’re ready to walk out.”

Inspired by efforts in Bartlesville to spark a statewide teacher walkout, Douthat, an English teacher at Union High School, had been forced to move quickly the last week of March 2018, calling Union teachers together just days before the event to decide whether they would participate.

“We had 225 people show up from six (Union Public Schools) sites,” he said of the meeting, organized primarily by putting fliers on cars.

With everyone on the same page about walking out, it went from there, Douthat said.

The school board gave its approval and that very next Monday, April 2, 2018 — just like in Bartlesville and other districts across the state — the doors to Union High School and all other district school sites remained closed.

“Then it took on a life of its own,” Douthat told the Tulsa World.

April 2 officially marks one year since Douthat and thousands of teachers from across Oklahoma walked out of their classrooms, demanding that legislators address a decade’s worth of cuts and general neglect by increasing public education funding.

A repeat of that in 2019 is not expected, though education leaders won’t rule out a future walkout. In the meantime, if not a walkout, OEA has vowed to organize a “statewide concerted activity” if its demands aren’t met by the Legislature’s Monday deadline.

While watching current happenings at the Capitol closely, some educators and others affected by the 2018 walkout talked to the Tulsa World recently about the event and what kind of perspective on it the past 12 months have provided.

Like a lot of other teachers involved, Douthat felt torn about returning to the classroom, he said.

Had it been the right move — calling off the walkout after two weeks? The Legislature did pass a teacher pay revenue package, bringing teachers an average raise of $6,100. But that came two weeks before the walkout in response to the threat itself. Almost nothing had been obtained for overall education funding. A lot of uncertainty remained.

“At the time, I wanted to keep going,” Douthat said. But, while his district’s officials were still supportive, “it became obvious there wasn’t really any reason to stay at the Capitol.”

Looking back now, in light of events of the past year, Douthat is even more convinced that they didn’t need to.

“I think we nailed it,” he said. “Our voices were heard.”

“And they know we can’t go another 10 years. We won’t allow it. We will keep this in the forefront of the news.”

Most legislators he and others talked to a year ago during the rallies at the Capitol, Douthat said, were sympathetic and “understood that things had to change.”

And for the few who didn’t? “They don’t have jobs there anymore,” he said, referring to legislators who were subsequently voted out of office.

He said that the change in tone at the Capitol is also encouraging.

“For so long it had been ‘We don’t have the money, so let’s not talk about (education).’ Now the conversations are happening,” he said.

Douthat doesn’t believe any of that would going on had teachers not followed through last year and walked out.

The walkout, he added, helped drive home the point that “teachers will not allow their profession to be neglected. Because when it is, students ultimately are the ones who are affected.”

During the 2018 walkout, Bartlesville school board member Alison Clark and first-grade teacher Heather Boyle spent a lot of time together at the Capitol.

It’s refreshing, Clark said, to see how the atmosphere there has changed since then. Take Public Education Week at the Capitol, she said, and some of the images that recently emerged — such as Gov. Kevin Stitt and other leaders welcoming and even taking selfies with teachers.

“Education is now something everybody talks about,” Clark said. “That may sound trivial, but it’s on the top of the minds of so many people.”

“Would that have happened without the walkout? Maybe. But I highly doubt it.”

“Really, it’s been a remarkable year,” added Boyle, past president of the Bartlesville Education Association. Since the walkout, more teachers became active in politics, either running themselves or voting in legislators with pro-public education agendas, she said. Bartlesville teachers negotiated “advocacy days” as part of their annual contract, and now a group of teachers goes to the Capitol every Tuesday during the session.

Boyle said the walkout came along at the right “moment in time because teachers were so demoralized — watching their colleagues leaving in droves, having not had a significant raise in 20 years. The walkout gave us a voice. It empowered us at a critical time.”

Looking back a year later, Clark still believes the walkout — though “a card you hope you never have to play” — was the right move.

But so, too, was ending it, she said. The district where the idea for the walkout first gained traction, Bartlesville, was also the first to say “it’s time to go back.”

“We were on the precipice of losing public support. My worst fear was that the public would turn against us,” Clark said.

“It was a hard call, but I think it was the right one.”

Boyle remembers how hard it was a year ago, breaking the news to teachers on the Capitol lawn.

“It was very emotional. There was a lot of crying,” she said, adding that Bartlesville had more than 200 people at the Capitol every day of the walkout.

“But while it was harder to see at the time, I think the further we’ve gotten away from (the walkout), we can clearly see the gains,” Boyle said.

Stillwater teacher Alberto Morejon — whose Facebook group was key in building grassroots support for the walkout — remembers feeling “defeated and heartbroken” when it ended.

But in the year since, things have happened that are “very inspiring and show that we are on the right track,” he said.

Morejon points specifically to “the election results (that) showed it’s possible to defeat anti-education legislators. A lot of pro-public education candidates ran, and many actually won their races.”

Further underscoring that “there is hope,” he said, was the defeat of an effort to repeal the tax package funding the teacher pay hikes. Education groups challenged the petition filed by Oklahoma Taxpayers Unite, and it was thrown out by the state Supreme Court.

“No doubt,” Morejon added, “the walkout got more teachers engaged in politics and created more advocates for the cause.”

Shawna Mott-Wright, vice president of the Tulsa Classroom Teachers Association, agreed.

“It’s been a crazy whirlwind of a year” since the walkout, she said, with more and more teachers and supporters getting involved in the political process.

“We’ve seen an awakening,” she said. “People are paying a lot closer attention to the Legislature than they were before. That’s good for the entire state.”

TCTA recently hosted a meeting of local teachers. What’s been accomplished since the walkout was one of the topics, with the larger goal of determining what’s still needed.

The walkout “was great and historic and momentous, and I was proud to be a part of it,” Mott-Wright said. “But it was an event.”

The important thing coming out of it, she added, was “to show that it was not an isolated event. And we’ve done that. It’s a movement, and it continues to be a movement.”

With the Legislature’s deadline looming, the OEA is sticking to its proposal of what is needed: $150 million in added classroom funding, a $3,000 raise for teachers, a $2,500 raise for support professionals and an 8 percent cost of living adjustment for education retirees. The requests are the second phase of the group’s multiyear plan to reverse the state’s education funding crisis.

Douthat, a five-year educator who left a previous career with QuikTrip, remembers how fired up he was in the lead-up to the walkout, as teachers rallied, chanted and waved signs on roadsides.

“I was ready to shut down 71st Street,” he said.

But while they carried that passion and intensity to the Capitol, Douthat added, “we weren’t there to break windows, or turn over police cars and set them on fire.” On the contrary, one of the memories that has stayed with him, he said, is “how peaceful we all were.”

“And unified. I mean, you had Jenks and Union teachers walking arm in arm,” he laughed. “And Tulsa and Oklahoma City teachers.”

For all the positives, Douthat is clear on one thing, though:

“I never want to do it again.”

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Information from: Tulsa World, http://www.tulsaworld.com