OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — Thousands of Oklahoma teachers, students and their supporters staged massive demonstrations at the state Capitol for the fourth straight day Thursday while Republican lawmakers struggled to find a way to placate the chanting masses and bring an end to school closures in some of the state’s largest districts.
State House and Senate leaders announced they would take up money-raising bills Friday — a rarity for Oklahoma lawmakers who typically don’t go to the Capitol on the final day of the workweek. But it remained unclear if that would be enough to bring an end to the teacher walkout.
Senate Floor Leader Greg Treat, a key negotiator on the budget, said he had not met with education union leaders and didn’t know what it would take to resolve the situation.
“I’m not the one who started the walkout, so I’m not the person to ask,” said Treat, a Republican from Oklahoma City.
Republican Gov. Mary Fallin has faced the brunt of criticism from teachers, many of whom blame the term-limited governor for supporting tax cuts and generous state subsidies for businesses that have led to declines in state funding for schools and other state services. The governor further raised the ire of teachers after an interview this week in which she likened striking teachers to a “teenage kid that wants a better car.”
Dozens of protesters inside the packed Capitol responded Wednesday by jangling their keys in the Capitol rotunda and chanting “Where’s our car?”
And when Fallin took the state airplane to a business opening in McAlester, about 140 miles southeast of Oklahoma City, several protesters were on hand at the airport to jeer her.
“It just seems like there’s a large lack of understanding on her part,” said Jennifer Smith, an elementary school teacher from Tulsa who held a sign comparing Fallin to Dolores Umbridge, the villainous schoolmarm from the popular Harry Potter series.
“I don’t see her handling this,” Smith said. “She’s not here. She hasn’t been here. I haven’t seen her out here talking to us.”
State Rep. Cory Williams was even more pointed in his criticism of Fallin.
“I don’t know how you can be so tone-deaf to what is actually happening in our schools and with our kids,” said Williams, a Democrat. “Whenever she says teachers are like teenage children who just want a new car? No, teachers are people who want a roof that doesn’t leak, toner for their copiers and textbooks for the kids.”
Fallin spokesman Michael McNutt said the governor wasn’t immediately available for comment Thursday.
The governor signed legislation last week granting teachers pay raises of about $6,100, or 15 to 18 percent, as well as tens of millions of new dollars for public schools. But many educators said classrooms need more money, joining a movement of teachers that has ignited protests in other Republican-led states including West Virginia, Kentucky and Arizona.
Teachers now are pushing lawmakers to pass several more revenue-raising plans, including one that eliminates the income tax deduction for capital gains that would generate about $120 million annually. Other measures to expand tribal gambling and tax certain internet sales would bring roughly $40 million.
Alicia Priest, the head of the state’s largest teachers’ union, signaled late Wednesday that passage of the tribal gambling and internet tax bills would indicate “major progress toward funding the schools our students deserve.”
Many teachers already are back at work, especially in rural communities where local boards didn’t vote to shut down. Still, schools in the state’s largest districts are expected to remain shuttered, including Oklahoma City, Tulsa and many suburban communities.