OKLAHOMA CITY — 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 a walkoutat some of the state’s largest school 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 a top teachers union leader said Thursday that he did not believe the measures under consideration would be enough to end the strike.
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, but said she had been at the Capitol every day this week and visited with educators.
Fallin, a lame-duck governor in her final year, has had scant success in recent years pushing her agenda, despite overwhelming GOP majorities in both chambers. Her proposal last year to generate revenue for teacher raises by broadening the sales tax fell flat in the Legislature. She focused her final State of the State address this year endorsing a tax-hike package dubbed “Step Up” that was endorsed by civic and industry leaders, but the measure never made it out of the House.
Ultimately, 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. That bill faces fierce GOP opposition in the House.
Two other measures to expand tribal gambling and tax certain internet sales that are expected to be considered in the Senate Friday would generate roughly $40 million annually.
But David Duvall, the executive director of the state’s largest teachers’ union, the Oklahoma Education Association, said late Thursday he didn’t think the two bills would be enough to keep the teacher walkout from stretching into next week.
“Our members know their needs, and they’re going to tell us when it’s enough,” Duvall said. “I anticipate that we’ll be back up here on Monday.”
Many teachers already are back at work, especially in rural communities where local boards didn’t vote to shut down. But the state’s two largest school districts, Oklahoma City and Tulsa, announced plans to close for a fifth day on Friday.
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