Steve Lewis served as Speaker of the Oklahoma House of Representatives from 1989-1991. He currently practices law in Tulsa and represents clients at the Capitol.
Where are the teachers? I don’t blame the teachers who have decided to leave the classroom or leave the state. But are those who are staying willing to fight in Oklahoma for their profession and their children? After four months of wrangling, legislators closed the 2017 session with a so-called “flat” education budget. Many of them wanted to do better, but they could have used a little help. We’re number one in cutting education in the past eight years.
On April 7, 1989, after it became apparent the 1989 Legislature would fail to pass a tax increase, members of the Oklahoma Education Association (OEA) delegate assembly voted 20,114 to 4,329 to “withhold all professional services” if the Legislature failed during its 1989 session to provide schools with a significant funding increase. The delegates voted to either stop work on Sept. 5, 1989, or delay starting school in the fall, depending on a decision to be made before June 20 by the OEA board of directors. The delegate assembly had voted the previous year to give its president, Kyle Dahlem, authority to call a one-day walkout, an option she did not exercise. Of the 36,000 teachers in the state, 30,000 were OEA members.
Finally, when the Oklahoma Legislature adjourned its session at the end of May 1989 with only a $50 million increase in school funding (today’s equivalent would be over $100 million), the OEA board voted to circulate a statewide petition asking Governor Bellmon to call a special session to deal with school funding. Bellman initially opposed OEA’s proposal for a special session, saying education received a “healthy increase” and would get more as the economy improved.
But Governor Bellmon caught the entire state by surprise on July 11, 1989, when, citing an emergency in education funding, he unexpectedly called a special session to be convened on August 14, 1989. In his memoir Bellmon explained that he had attended a Republican teacher organization meeting and, expecting to be warmly received, he “never encountered a more hostile group.” The teachers “were furious at their low level of compensation, shortage of funds for textbooks and supplies, and at the lack of significant progress in education funding throughout their careers.” After that, the governor brought up the idea of a special session with his cabinet and to his surprise found almost immediate and unanimous support. The special session resulted in the signing of the revenue and reform measure HB 1017 by Governor Bellmon at Marshall Elementary School in Tulsa on April 25, 1990.
Today’s Oklahoma economy is much better than it was in 1989-90, but across the board, the state budget has been eviscerated. The things children need for positive and productive futures, a safe place, health care, mental health and counseling, and a good education are in jeopardy for many children. The teachers need to use their outside voices.