Most Oklahoma teachers will return to school on Friday, putting an end to a nine-day strike that resulted in pay raises and boosted state funding for education.
The demonstrations, which sent teachers by the tens of thousands to the state Capitol each day schools were closed, represented the strongest labor action the conservative state has seen in several decades.
The threat of a strike initially prompted legislators to give the teachers a $6,000 average raise this year and add nearly $500 million in education funding. During the subsequent walkout, the legislature passed several other revenue increases to benefit education, including a new tax on online sales and an expansion of the types of games permitted at casinos.
Oklahoma was the second state to hold a prolonged, statewide teachers strike just this year, after West Virginia, and with educators threatening imminent work stoppages in Kentucky and Arizona, it will likely not be the last.
Oklahoma Education Association President Alicia Priest, representing the state’s largest teachers union, made the announcement at a press conference in Oklahoma City Thursday afternoon. She said a large majority of members believed continuing the strike wouldn’t produce any further results.
“While the walkout is ending today and we are going back to school, we are not just giving up and going home,” Ms. Priest said, saying the union would launch a three-year campaign to pressure lawmakers to vote for additional funding increases.
The threat of a strike last month prompted the Republican-dominated legislature to pass legislation awarding teachers a $6,000 average raise this year, funded through new taxes on the oil and gas industry. The legislature also raised overall education funding by nearly $500 million through a combination of new taxes.
That was particularly noteworthy because Oklahoma requires 75% of lawmakers to approve for tax increases, making them rare, and much of the state’s existing revenue comes from its dominant energy sector.
The teachers opted to strike anyway, demanding that the legislature award them a $10,000 overall pay increase and reverse additional cuts it had made to the state’s education budget. Oklahoma’s education funding has fallen by 28% since the 2008-2009 recession, making it the steepest cut in the country, according to the liberal-leaning Center for Budget and Policy Priorities.
The strike angered many lawmakers, who appeared increasingly unwilling to pass additional sources of revenue. One Republican legislator lamented teachers’ “stinking” behavior in a since-deleted Facebook video, while the state’s governor, Mary Fallin, told a local radio host that educators were acting like “a teenage kid that wants a better car.”
U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos also weighed in late last week, telling teachers to “keep adult disagreements and disputes in a separate place.”
An official end to the nine-day strike likely won’t end all activity. Teachers in a Facebook group with over 73,000 members vowed to continue protesting despite their union’s wishes, and several outspoken educators have announced intentions to run for office.
Ms. Priest, the union head, warned lawmakers near the end of the press conference that they would feel electoral consequences.
“We got here by electing the wrong people to office,” she said. “No more.”
Write to Michelle Hackman at Michelle.Hackman@wsj.com