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Rogue insurgency

The OEA and the fight for Oklahoma’s education movement

Stillwater educator Alberto Morejon speaks to fellow teachers to plan for the future of their movement on April 12, the day the OEA called for the end of the teacher walkout.

Joseph Rushmore

On April 12, Alicia Priest, Oklahoma Education Association president, livestreamed a press conference in which she announced the end of the statewide teacher walkout. The post’s comment thread was a sight to behold. Red angry-face emojis leapt across the screen with every word she spoke.

But Priest intended the speech to be a victory lap.

“Because of the members of the Oklahoma Education Association and overwhelming support by the public, we were able to secure $479 million in education funding,” Priest said. “Nevertheless, the legislature has fallen far short of their responsibility to Oklahoma.”

Her announcement to end the walkout garnered an eight-minute stream of hate in the comment thread. Leveled at Priest were expletives, some unrepeatable accusations, and numerous appearances of the the verb “caved.”

OEA Vice President Katherine Bishop understands why so many teachers are angry.

“People have become emotionally invested in this movement,” she said. “We worked diligently to help with [the end of the walkout], but not everyone was going to be ready at the same time. Teachers kept hearing if we just waited two more days something big was going to happen. That just wasn’t the case. We had the majority of our schools called back in for Monday [April 16], whether they sent delegations to the capitol or not. So, we felt a real sense of responsibility to make that transition [back] as smooth as possible.”

Alberto Morejon, creator of the Facebook group Oklahoma Teachers United, read the outcome of the walkout differently. The 25-year-old history teacher from Stillwater created the group so teachers could discuss and find updates on bills. But instead the group became an organizing platform for more than 40,000 teachers online. It’s grown into one of the main social media spaces for the post-walkout movement. Teachers in the group vent their frustration with both the OEA and legislators, and they help organize delegations to the capitol while preparing for upcoming elections.

“The walkout was good because it brought teachers together,” Morejon said. “That second Monday we had close to 50,000 people. It’s tough, because we walked out for ten days and really weren't able to get what we wanted. The OEA kind of gave up on us and kind of threw us under the bus. So, it was either go back or it was going to turn into an actual strike.”

Morejon thinks parents were confused by the mixed messages sent by the union leadership. “Parents are watching the news and they hear the Union say the walkout is over—but teachers say it’s not. This had to leave parents a little frustrated. You’ve got the union saying that we got more when we actually didn’t.”

Other teachers in the grassroots movement felt similarly. Larry Cagle, an AP English teacher at Edison High School, was an early organizer who feels the union hijacked the protest. He still describes himself as “pissed off” at the OEA.

“Back in March, the grassroots teachers got big enough. We just called the union’s bluff,” Cagle said. “We called Burt Mummolo (a KTUL reporter from OKC) to tell him teachers from all over Oklahoma were meeting to talk about a walkout. The threat of that meeting is what we used to get the OEA to act. We wanted the union to get in front of us. We knew it would be bigger and stronger if the union was out front—which was an incredible miscalculation. We couldn’t have been more wrong.”

Kara Rockholt has been an elementary English teacher at TPS for nearly a decade. She joined the procession of teachers at Webster High School who marched 110 miles from Tulsa to the Oklahoma State Capitol during the first week of the walkout. Her view was more nuanced than Cagle’s.

“I’m not nearly as anti-union as some people. I just feel disappointed in the OEA. I think their hearts are in the right place, but I was ready to continue to fight. I believe that public education is a civil right. I believe that everyone deserves fair and equal education. So, I think now all our hope is on June and November,” she said.

There’s a real “The Empire Strikes Back” quality to this story: A rogue insurgency feels betrayed. The powers that be have reasserted themselves, and to some it would seem the dark side is winning.

Tulsa School of Arts and Sciences Principal Dan Hahn, however, feels hopeful.

“I think the union was mostly positive during the walkout,” Hahn said. “The OEA jumped on the grassroots movement and gave it some more momentum and muscle. I think they squandered the ending for political reasons, but I’m not sure there was any more change that was going to happen that next week. I just hope teachers don’t leave yet. I would ask them to respectfully continue the dissent till we truly extend this country’s promises to all the people here.”

On April 27, a letter was circulated by a small group of the OEA’s elected delegates with a petition to impeach Alicia Priest and Katherine Bishop. According to OEA bylaws, this petition requires 15 percent of OEA delegates to force impeachment proceedings by an OEA review board. That’s only about 40 signatures. The struggle to control Oklahoma’s education battles is far from over.

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