By Heide Brandes
OKLAHOMA CITY (Reuters) – Oklahoma’s largest teachers union on Thursday called off a nearly two-week walkout that shut public schools statewide, saying it had secured historic gains in education funding after school budgets were devastated by a decade of cuts.
The move came after the Republican-dominated legislature passed its first major tax hikes in a quarter century that raised about $450 million in revenue for education. Republican leaders said they had no plans to go as high as the $600 million being sought by educators.
“We absolutely have a victory for teachers,” Alicia Priest, president of the Oklahoma Education Association, told a news conference.
“Our members are saying they want to go back to the classroom,” said Priest, whose union has about 40,000 members.
Some major districts have said they will resume classes on Monday.
The strike was part of a wave of actions by teachers in states that have some of the lowest per-student spending in the country. A West Virginia strike ended last month with a pay raise for teachers, and educators in Arizona protested before classes on Wednesday, without skipping work, to seek enhanced education funding.
The Oklahoma walkout began on April 2 and affected about 500,000 of the state’s 700,000 public school students.
Opinion surveys showed it had garnered wide support among Oklahoma voters, many of whom had seen firsthand how students at struggling schools had to share outdated and tattered textbooks and sometimes go to a four-day school week to help save districts money.
Oklahoma teachers, who were seeking a $10,000 annual wage hike over three years, will see an average annual pay raise of about $6,100 from the increased funding, lawmakers said.
In May 2017, their annual mean wage was $41,880, among the lowest in the country, compared with neighboring states such as Texas at $57,830 and Kansas at $50,470, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
School districts for the most part supported the teacher walk-out. But they began to run out of wiggle room to make up for lost time when the labor action threatened to extend the school year, piling pressure on teachers to return.
Low wages have created an exodus of educators, causing a teacher shortage in Oklahoma. As a result, school districts had to cut curricula and deploy nearly 2,000 emergency-certified instructors as a stop-gap measure.
(Reporting by Heide Brandes in Oklahoma City and Lenzy Krehbiel-Burton in Tulsa; Writing by Jon Herskovitz; Editing by Bill Tarrant and Sandra Maler)