On the fourth day of a teachers' strike which has kept hundreds of thousands of students out of school this week, educators from across Oklahoma warned lawmakers that they have no plans to end the walkout until the State House and Senate approve a funding increase for schools—to make up for a decade in which the state cut spending by 14 percent per child and teachers saw no pay raises.
As lawmakers debated several funding proposals on Thursday, teachers in the State Capitol building chanted, "We're still here!" According to the Oklahoma Education Association, the state's biggest teachers' union, the crowd was the biggest it's been all week.
Outside, despite cold weather, thousands of educators and supporters from across the state appeared content to stay at the Capitol until lawmakers represented their wishes.
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Since the protests began Monday, the teachers have celebrated one legislative victory when the state House passed H.B.1019xx, also known as the "Amazon tax," which would establish a sales tax that's expected to generate $20 million for school funding.
On Friday the state Senate is expected to reconvene to consider the Amazon tax as well as a tax on hotels and motels, which would generate $50 million, and a $22 million plan—often called "Ball and Dice"—to allow certain gambling games at casinos.
The passage of the Amazon tax and Ball and Dice alone "will nearly double the increase in funding for Oklahoma students since the walkout started," said Alicia Priest, president of the OEA, on Wednesday. "This is funding that can be used to buy new textbooks, bring back art and music classes, and fund support staff raises. This is exactly what we've been fighting for."
The walkout began when the state legislature passed a bill giving teachers $6,100 raises and offering $50 million in school funding—a measure that Republican Gov. Mary Fallin called "historic" despite that fact that teachers have not been given a raise in a decade and the funding would "buy less than one textbook per student," according to Priest.
Along with the impassioned protests at the Capitol, the fight for funding has inspired at least one veteran teacher to run for office—against state Rep. Kevin McDugle, one of the legislators who voted against sufficient funding and criticized education supporters for protesting.
"For years, my profession has been under siege by our legislature. Budget cut after budget cut have forced us to do ever more with ever less, and it cannot continue on this path," said Cyndi Ralston, who announced her run to represent the state's 12th District this week. "When my colleagues and I have visited our Republican representatives and senators, we have been brushed off, if not outright lied to...I cannot, I will not stand idly by any longer."
About 100 teachers from Tulsa also continued a 110-mile walk to the capitol on Thursday after beginning the trek the day before.
"If your teachers are willing to walk 110 miles for their students, what is the Oklahoma legislature willing to do for the students of Oklahoma?" Heather Cody, a third-grade teacher who organized the march, told NBC News.