Education rallies, then and now (Guest Post: Steve Lewis)

Steve Lewis served as Speaker of the House of Representatives from 1989-1991 during the time of HB 1017. He currently practices law in Tulsa.

NOW: The crowd at the Rally for Education, March 31, 2014
NOW: The crowd at the Rally for Education, March 31, 2014

I don’t know how much was accomplished by the education rally at the Capitol last week, but I hope it was a success.  From inside the Capitol, I stood at the window a few times to look outside and walk down memory lane.  I was there in 1990 when the teachers came to the Capitol to demonstrate for HB 1017.  Several people asked me how this rally for education compared to the 1017 march.  Truthfully, they were quite different because the circumstances were different.

As I understand, last week’s rally was to demonstrate frustration by educators and supporters with the lack of funding and perceived lack of respect for public education.  With funding over $200 million less than 6 years ago, and with costs and the numbers of students substantially higher, education funding is in crisis.  Yet the governor and legislature propose more tax cuts.  Schools are living with Common Core, third grade reading requirements, high stakes testing, and attempts to compare schools, administrators and teachers based on letter grades that may not truly measure effort and merit.  Many educators, parents and citizens feel public education is spiraling downward and may reach a tipping point beyond which it will not recover.  Teachers feel their profession has been taken over by powerful, inimical forces that threaten the future of their students, their schools and their jobs all at once.  They came to the Capitol to express their frustration.  With so many issues it was probably difficult to maintain focus.

THEN: Gov. Henry Bellmon signs HB 1017 in Tulsa, April 1990. Speaker Steve Lewis stands in the back to the right. Image from Tulsa World

By contrast, the four days in April, 1990 were totally focused.   The teacher walkout and demonstration came at the end of 8 months of public debate and a fierce battle between legislators among themselves, teachers, parents and nearly everyone in the state.  HB 1017 contained a $230 million tax increase with reforms such as smaller class sizes, teacher pay increases, curriculum improvements and teacher due process changes.  There was an element of risk that added to the electricity in the atmosphere.  Governor Bellmon had opposed the walkout at first and asked the Attorney General to take action to stop it.  Attorney General Robert Henry said the law was unclear.  There was no assurance the public would be supportive. 

When the teachers arrived at the capitol in April, 1990, HB 1017 had passed both houses, but the necessary emergency clause had failed in the Senate.  The teachers came to the Capitol on Monday, April 16th and appeared willing to stay until the emergency clause passed.  The lines were clearly drawn, and the goal was passage of the emergency clause.  The crowd was about 5,000 on the first day.  Momentum grew as more schools closed and more teachers arrived at the capitol.  Those who didn’t come to the capitol rallied in their communities.  On the fourth and final day, the crowd was over 20,000 when five votes switched and the emergency measure passed.  Adding to the drama, weather conditions were blustery and rainy the last two days with educators marching around the capitol in the rain carrying signs, holding children, singing, listening to speeches.  Inside, the halls were full with teachers talking to legislators and standing outside Senate meeting rooms, the Senate chamber and gallery.  They were well-behaved, but relentless. 

Last week the teachers showed up about 10:30 a.m. and most were gone by 2:30 p.m.  There was no crisis atmosphere discernible from inside the building.  Very few came inside to talk to legislators.  I guess the main difference between last week and the 1990 rally is that last week the teachers came to the capitol to start something.  In 1990 they came to demand that the legislature finish the job.  If this year’s rally doesn’t produce results, there may be another one more like the 1990 demonstrations in our future.

The opinions stated above are not necessarily those of OK Policy, its staff, or its board. This blog is a venue to help promote the discussion of ideas from various points of view and we invite your comments and contributions. To see our guidelines for blog submissions, click here.


The opinions stated in guest articles are not necessarily those of OK Policy, its staff, or its board. To see our guidelines for blog submissions, click here.

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