OKLAHOMA CITY — Tensions escalated as thousands of supporters walked out of school for the second day, with educators cramming the Oklahoma Capitol Tuesday to pressure lawmakers to increase education funding.
“We knew we had 30,000 people outside (Monday), but we needed to be in our house, and we needed the legislators to hear us and that we weren’t going away,” said Katherine Bishop, vice president of the Oklahoma Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union.
Throughout the day, educators chanted “Fund Our Schools” and crowded inside and outside legislators’ offices. Even as breast cancer survivors tried to hold their scheduled advocacy day to increase awareness, Oklahoma educators drowned them out by shouting “We need teachers! We need books!”
So many teachers filled hallways during the walkout's second day that the state Capitol reached capacity, with troopers shutting the building down temporarily for safety reasons.
Many school districts across Oklahoma, meanwhile, remained closed.
Carla Worley, a school counselor with Westville, Oklahoma, schools, was among hundreds of educators who waited in long lines outside in a bitter north wind. By lunchtime, Worley said she had waited more than two hours to enter the Capitol, and hoped that her local lawmakers would still be there by the time she made it to the front of the line.
She and other colleagues left early Tuesday to make the nearly four-hour drive to the Oklahoma Capitol. Worley skipped Monday’s walkout to help her district prepare for standardized testing, which was scheduled for Tuesday, but didn’t happen because of the walkout
“It’s incredible,” said state Rep. Emily Virgin, D-Norman, Oklahoma, of the turnout. “I’ve never seen anything like this in the Capitol. In education rallies in the past, we’ve only had one day. And it’s been easy for legislators who don’t want to do anything to wait that out.”
She said the presence would be “incredibly helpful” to help pressure the Republican-controlled Legislature to act.
“You have to come and talk to legislators and tell them what you want and make them uncomfortable like (educators) have been doing today,” Virgin said. “That’s what’s going to change things.”
But as the day progressed, tempers flared inside the building.
Educators, who packed the House of Representatives’ spectator gallery, booed Oklahoma lawmakers when they adjourned for a second day without considering any substantial funding measures for education. As officials tried to maintain order, they disrupted proceedings further by chanting “Fund our schools!”
In a video posted to Facebook that was apparently taped on the House floor, state Rep. Kevin McDugle, R-Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, said educators’ tactics are costing them support.
“And now they come into this House, and (they) want to act this way,” he said. “I’m not voting for another stinkin’ measure when they’re acting the way they’re acting. Our kids follow their example, and this is the example they set? I understand the frustration, but this is not the way to go about it.”
McDugle's office door was locked Tuesday afternoon, though a small crowd of educators had it surrounded. He later posted a second video apologizing, blaming many issues on agitators from out of state.
By midday, legislative assistants who work for state representatives were told they could go home “in the interest of safety.”
Someone scrawled “bulls***” on a sign to constituents that state Rep. Bobby Cleveland, R-Slaughterville, hung on his door explaining what the Legislature was doing to fund education. Then someone else took a black marker, crossed it out and wrote “Sorry” with a smiley face. When Cleveland’s assistant replaced the vandalized sign, within seconds, someone wrote “Incomplete D-“ across the top in red marker.
Cleveland declined to comment.
Chris Housman, a Norman middle school geography teacher, stood outside Cleveland’s door wearing a giant placard reading “Does Bobby Cleveland Represent Us?”
“This is not the kind thing that it’s about calling anyone out,” Housman said. “It’s about doing the right thing. I think we’re past time for that.”
The right thing, he said, is to make sure Oklahoma doesn’t have classes with 35 students. Housman said his average class size is 30.
While he’s not sure his Capitol attendance will have any impact, Housman said he’ll keep coming back until lawmakers do something.
“For 10 years we did nothing, so it’s time to do something,” he said. “Education is the best resource. Is everyone in Oklahoma really OK with being ranked 48th and 49th in everything?”
Someone scrawled “Booo!” on paper hanging outside the door of state Rep. Kevin Wallace, R-Wellston, that said he supported $5,000 raises.
After the Legislature agreed to fund teacher raises, state Rep. Lewis Moore, R-Arcadia, said his Republican colleagues are disappointed that “a lot of people are not satisfied.”
More than 80 to 90 percent of Oklahomans want teachers appropriately compensated and schools to succeed, he said.
“The problem is we only have so much money,” he said. “We have 528 agencies, boards and commissions, so they’re competing for the money.”
Lawmakers last week voted to raise more than $447 million in taxes to fund an average permanent $6,100 raise for teachers. That legislation will also pay for $50 million in increased classroom spending and fund increases 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.
Teachers said they appreciate the pay increase, but said more work remains to adequately funding public schools statewide.
A spokesman for Gov. Mary Fallin said she’s been at the Capitol for both days of the rally. On Tuesday, she met with teaching contingents from Moore, Mustang and Chisholm, who stopped by her office.
Outside the Capitol, Wendy Lantz was among hundreds of educators repeatedly circling and waving signs, trying to convince lawmakers to spend more funds on the classroom.
While the Stillwater second-grade teacher hadn’t actually entered the building, she was convinced her presence was making a difference.
“There are way too many of us to ignore,” she said. “I heard that they are done for the day and won’t be back until 3 tomorrow because that’s when our buses stop running.”
Janelle Stecklein covers the Oklahoma Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites. Reach her at email@example.com.