Working educators, not union leaders or politicians, rapidly elevated the idea of a widespread teacher walkout in Oklahoma from an idle threat whispered in teachers lounges to a statewide movement.
Alberto Morejon is just 25 years old and in his third year of teaching U.S. History and coaching junior varsity baseball at Stillwater Junior High School.
Barely 10 days ago, he started a Facebook group that now claims nearly 65,000 members and he was instrumental in getting the plan for a walkout moved up from April 23 to April 2.
Morejon said awareness about the possibility of teachers following through on the idea of a walkout first came from news of an online survey of superintendents by Bartlesville Superintendent Chuck McCauley.
“I definitely think he did a lot to get the ball rolling. My group just threw a ton of gas on the fire and accelerated things,” said Morejon.
Morejon wanted to know what other classroom teachers like him and his wife, who also works at Stillwater Public Schools, thought of the idea. He thought a closed Facebook group might be a safe forum for discussion, but some of his colleagues cautioned him against making waves.
“I had people tell me you probably shouldn’t do it, it probably won’t work,” Morejon said. “I was sitting on my couch reading about what was going on in West Virginia and I did it anyway because I thought it was the right thing to do.”
He called the group “Oklahoma Teacher Walkout — The Time Is Now!” and in his wildest imagining, thought a maximum of 10,000 to 15,000 of Oklahoma’s 42,000 teachers would ever hear about it.
“My idea was to start the conversation and be a place teachers could trust the information coming in. I never thought I might have the opportunity to influence any of this,” he said. “This past week has felt like a month, to be honest with you.”
‘We have nothing to lose’
McCauley, who is only a second-year superintendent, said it is hard to believe how much has happened since he returned to Bartlesville on the evening of Feb. 12 with a group of sad, angry teachers.
“We were at the Capitol when Step Up Oklahoma failed on Monday the 12th. It was really, really devastating to our teachers — I mean, when the Tulsa World and the Daily Oklahoman both say, ‘This is a good idea’ — we thought we had a chance,” McCauley said. “I sent the e-mail on the 13th.”
It was last summer when he first heard Bartlesville teachers discussing the idea of a walkout to force the Oklahoma Legislature to confront the issue of rock-bottom teacher pay. That conversation was renewed with a vengeance amid the ashes of the Step Up plan.
McCauley is insistent that he wasn’t “orchestrating” anything, only wanting to gauge how many other superintendents and local school boards like Bartlesville’s would stand by their teachers if they decided to walk. But the results of McCauley’s online survey — a list of 30 supportive school districts with 25 percent of all 695,000 public school students in Oklahoma — was a powerful signal to teachers far and wide.
In the last two years, Bartlesville has cut more than 20 teaching positions, reduced its workforce of administrators and support workers, outsourced its custodial work and before- and after-school care for students, and shifted every expenditure allowed by state law to be paid for with voter-approved bond funds.
“In terms of efficiencies, we have cut, cut, cut. We are looking at outsourcing our cafeteria workers right now,” McCauley said. “We have a dedicated core of teachers in Bartlesville, but the rest are just a revolving door. We are literally hiring people we wouldn’t have even interviewed 10 years ago.”
McCauley said he would never have been in a position to stick his neck out with that superintendent survey without the deep convictions of local board members like Alison Clark.
“Our teachers are really comfortable being honest with us. They’re desperate for an option, but they think they only have one more chance,” said Clark. “We are supporting them because we know them, it’s that feeling that these are my friends and people I care about and the people teaching our children.”
Bartlesville’s potential leadership role in this movement is far from over. On Monday evening, district and school board leaders are set to present to their community a proposal they devised with help from Rep. Earl Sears, R-Bartlesville, for how the Legislature could fund teacher pay raises.
“We have nothing to lose,” Clark said.
‘Complicit in the lie
that all was OK’
Plenty of other educators are making their voices heard on social media and in national media coverage.
The talk of an Oklahoma teacher walkout has thrust Tulsan Larry Cagle into the national spotlight. Cagle has been quoted in the Los Angeles Times, New York Magazine and on CNBC about how a former student of his makes more as a QuikTrip employee than he does teaching English at Edison Preparatory School.
“I watched year after year, high-quality teachers retire early, move out of the district because they could not afford the cost of living, or move out of the state for higher wages,” said Cagle. “I watched superintendents and principals become complicit in the lie that all was OK.”
Cagle’s recent activism began this winter, when he and other Edison teachers sounded the alarm about a devolving school climate and sharp increase in teacher turnover at their school. They were joined by parents in successfully lobbying for a change in Edison’s administration.
Cagle has been an outspoken critic of the early handling of statewide teacher walkout talks by the Oklahoma Education Association, and even claimed some credit last week when the state teachers’ union moved its walkout date from April 23 to April 2 under pressure from teachers.
At a Wednesday evening meeting of the new group he founded, Oklahoma Teachers United, he proclaimed “it’s time for us to unite with the union,” while expressing skepticism that OEA would follow through on its demands.
Cagle’s group following on Facebook has rapidly grown to nearly 10,000 members and he’s launched a fundraiser online at GoFundMe for his teacher group’s marketing and legal advice needs.