A Look Back At The 1990 Teacher Strike In Oklahoma
OKLAHOMA CITY - Oklahoma educators appear to be moving closer to going on strike for the first time in almost thirty years.
Officials with the Oklahoma Education Association (OEA) say, without a pay raise for teachers and an increase in education funding, a strike is looking like a real possibility. According to the results of an OEA survey, released today, 81 percent of education employees and 76 percent of community members say they would support a teacher strike.
The last time teachers went on strike in Oklahoma was in 1990, when concerns being raised were very similar to those at the forefront today. The strike culminated with a hard-won victory for the OEA and education proponents, on a date most Oklahomans know well.
Since 1995, April 19th has been associated with just one thing in Oklahoma: the bombing of the Murrah Federal Building. However, for a few years prior to that, it brought up positive memories, for teachers anyway, because of what happened April 19, 1990.
"I sincerely would appreciate your vote on the bill and on the emergency," pleaded Bernice Shedrick, then a Democratic state senator representing Stillwater
By the time Sen. Shedrick made her impassioned speech on the Senate floor on the afternoon of April 19, 1990, she and other supporters of HB 1017, the Education Reform Act of 1990, were pretty certain they had the votes needed, not just to pass it, but to pass it with an emergency clause and allow it to go into effect immediately.
Outside the chamber, teachers were packed in the hallways, waiting to hear that the measure had received the requisite 32 votes. When it did, there were cheers, hugs, and tears.
Via walkie-talkie, word of the victory quickly made it outside the Capitol, where thousands of marchers had been braving a cold rain on day four of their strike.
"It's worth it! It's been worth it!" sobbed one teacher into the arms of another.
Just over a week earlier, the emotions had been exactly the opposite, as Senators failed to come up with enough votes to pass the emergency clause, and it appeared that almost nine months of work on a major reform measure had been for naught.
But leaders at OEA, the state teachers union, had others ideas.
"The very future of our children is at stake," said Kay Dahlem, then OEA President, "and I believe we can and will prevail in our struggle."
At the OEA's urging, teachers and their district administrators discussed a possible walkout, to begin the following week. The effort quickly gained momentum and on Monday, April 16, 1990, approximately 8,000 teachers and their supporters descended on the Capitol to urge lawmakers to complete the business they had started in special session the previous summer.
"We are in a crisis," one teacher explained on that first day of marching, "something has to be done."
At the time, Oklahoma's rankings were no better than they are today: 49th in teacher pay and 46th in total education funding. On day two, even more teachers came out to protest, and they didn't let up.
In the end, lawmakers said the teachers' persistence made the difference
"And it wasn't a strong-arm thing or anything like that," said Steve Lewis, then the Democratic Speaker of the House, "it was just a simple outpouring of physical demonstration of commitment and concern."
Oklahoma's Governor at the time, Henry Bellmon, signed the bill, and declared Oklahoma would no longer take a backseat to other states on education.. that in fact other states would look to Oklahoma for leadership on education.