Desperate Oklahoma Teachers Show Us the Essential Role of Taxes in a Good Society

In his fine book, The One Percent Solution, economist Gordon Lafer describes the widespread attack on public education across the now 26 red trifecta states, with House, Senate and Governor’s mansion dominated by far-right Republican majorities: “At first glance, it may seem odd that corporate lobbies such as the Chamber of Commerce, National Federation of Independent Businesses, or Americans for Prosperity would care to get involved in an issue as far removed from commercial activity as school reform. In fact, they have each made this a top legislative priority. As a result, in recent years there has been more (state) legislation adopted related to education than to any other area of social or economic policy… This unprecedented rush of legislation is not a response to sudden educational crisis…. Rather, it represents long-held ambitions that became politically possible following Citizens United, project RedMap, and the Great Recession-induced fiscal crisis.” (The One Percent Percent Solution, pp. 128-129)

Now across several states teachers are pushing backThis blog covered the recent successful West Virginia teachers’ strike that brought long underpaid teachers in that state a significant raise.  Today, the subject is Oklahoma, whose teachers are on strike to protest their abysmal salaries and the long underfunding of the state’s schools.  Tomorrow’s subject will be Kentucky.  All of these states have made tax slashing and austerity budgeting a priority—at the expense of public education.

Describing the reasons Oklahoma teachers went on strike yesterday, the Washington Post‘s, Moriah Balingit writes: “Oklahoma’s schools and educators have endured some of the steepest cuts in education in the last decade, reductions that are evident in dwindling supplies, aging textbooks and the pay stubs of teachers. Before last week, state lawmakers have not raised the minimum salary for teachers in a decade, making them among the worst paid in the nation… The cuts in Oklahoma… had dire consequences for schools. Districts have not been able to maintain buildings, so students shiver through the winter in classrooms with faulty heating, share long-outdated textbooks and become accustomed to a rotating cast of teachers. Many school districts have moved to four-day school weeks because they cannot afford to keep the lights on for five days.”

The NY TimesDana Goldstein describes how serving in Oklahoma has changed the point of view of Deborah Gist, the former state superintendent in Rhode Island and a corporate school reformer. Gist left Rhode Island to become Tulsa’s school superintendent: “Deborah Gist, who as the hard-charging education commissioner in Rhode Island tried to weaken teachers’ seniority protections and often clashed with their union, is now Tulsa’s schools superintendent and is allied with the Oklahoma union—the Oklahoma Education Association—in a fight for more money. Dr. Gist said she is unable to attract or retain effective educators because they can earn up to $20,000 more per year by moving to Texas or other neighboring states. Because so few licensed teachers are applying for jobs, Tulsa has relied on emergency certifications to hire more than 100 teachers who lack training in education. ‘Our teachers in Oklahoma are going above and beyond every single day for an unacceptable and unsustainable salary that doesn’t even provide them with a living wage,’ she said.” As Tulsa’s school superintendent, Gist has encountered the teachers in her employ working second jobs waiting tables, running the check out line at the grocery store, and driving for Uber.

For the Los Angeles Times, Matt Pearce provides salary details: “Starting pay for a teacher in Oklahoma with a bachelor’s degree is $31,600—a figure set by the Legislature. The state’s average salary for public school teachers is $45,276, lower than in any state except Mississippi and South Dakota….” In the 1990s the state legislature pushed through a statewide ballot initiative requiring a 75 percent legislative supermajority to increase taxes—the most stringent supermajority required anywhere for passage of a tax. Until last week, it had been 28 years since Oklahoma had passed a new tax. Under threat of a statewide strike last week, the legislature did pass a measure that would raise taxes enough to increase teachers’ salaries by $6,000, but the revenue increase would not raise enough to address all of the teachers’ other demands for funding education after a years’ long downturn.

In an earlier report for the Washington Post, Moriah Balingit shows how the state’s inability to overcome the supermajority rule for passing taxes has been complicated by additional factors: “The state’s funding crisis began at least a decade ago when the recession hit, leading lawmakers to take a cleaver to education spending  Even after the state’s economy recovered, long-standing tax cuts and plunging oil prices constrained state revenue and depleted education spending. In this deeply conservative state, lawmakers have resisted raising taxes….”

Writing for Jacobin Magazine, Eric Blanc traces the deterioration of public schools to continuing cuts in oil and gas production taxes: “Oklahoma currently has the lowest tax rate on oil and gas of any state. Until recently, the state charged a 7 percent gross production tax on oil and gas drilling, yet a 2015 tax break lowered this to 2 percent for the first three years that a well is in use. The cost to the state is estimated at $300 to $400 million yearly.”  “More recently, in February of this year, a legislative proposal called Step Up Oklahoma—jointly backed by business leaders, the governor, and the OEA teachers’ union—would have given teachers a $5,000 increase, primarily by levying regressive sales taxes.  The proposal failed to clear the 75 percent supermajority hurdle, but the very fact that leading Republicans were now talking about modestly raising taxes testified to their growing awareness that the crisis of public education had become a political time bomb… Oklahoma teachers have felt hopeless and powerless for years… (but) inspired by West Virginia’s example, strike fever rapidly spread across Oklahoma.”

Oklahoma is the state whose basic school funding formula per pupil is farthest behind where it was in 2008, when the Great Recession hit, according to the most recent report of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.  Oklahoma’s basic per-pupil funding is 28.2 percent lower, inflation adjusted, than in 2008—far lower than other states that have fallen behind. In Texas, per-pupil formula funding lags the 2008 level by 16.2 percent; Kentucky by 15.8 percent, Alabama by 15.3 percent, Arizona by 13.6 percent, and West Virginia by 11.3 percent.

For VOX, Alexia Fernandez Campbell summarizes the crisis—not only for underpaid teachers but also for children and for communities—that Oklahoma’s teachers expect the legislature address: “Last year, about a quarter of the state’s public school teachers left the state or quit teaching altogether. Those who remain have come up with a list of demands.  Teachers want raises for all state employees for the next three years, plus more spending on health care and pension plans. They also want lawmakers to restore millions of dollars in school funding that have been cut in the past decade. To meet the educators’ demands, state legislators need to come up with $3.3 billion over three years to pay for it. So far lawmakers have come up short”… Last week’s plan, passed by legislative supermajorities and signed by Governor Mary Fallin will “still only bring in $447 million for teachers’ pay raises….  The teachers’ demands add up to about $3.3 billion over three years.  That’s money Oklahoma doesn’t have on hand.” Campbell explains: “The latest bill… (passed last week) is the most generous yet, but the $447 million it would bring is still far too short.”

LA Times reporter Pearce adds an amazing detail about the teachers’ strike in Oklahoma: it doesn’t pit labor against management. Local school boards and school superintendents, unable to budge the legislature themselves, are grateful to schoolteachers for using the power of a strike to address a school finance catastrophe: “(S)chool boards across the state have taken a highly unusual step: They’re helping their workers go on strike. When teachers—or for that matter, workers in any field—strike, it’s usually a showdown with the bosses… But in Oklahoma—as with the recent nine-day teachers strike in West Virginia—the traditional battle lines between workers and management have gotten blurred as both sides take aim at a bigger target: the state Legislature. Across the state, teachers are getting a  boost from superintendents and school boards as they prepare to walk off the job…. At school board meetings, superintendents have given presentations to board members and curious parents about how a teacher walkout would work—and how they could support, and not oppose, a strike that would affect hundreds of thousands of Oklahoma students… Shawn Hime, executive director of the school board association, said that among the state’s 513 districts, he had not heard of a school board that had rejected the idea of a walkout.”

9 thoughts on “Desperate Oklahoma Teachers Show Us the Essential Role of Taxes in a Good Society

  1. Pingback: Jan Resseger: Why Teachers Are Walking Out, Part 2 | Diane Ravitch's blog

  2. Pingback: Kentucky: Teachers Stand Up for a Decent State Budget, Their Pensions, and Public Responsibility | janresseger

  3. Pingback: Just Perhaps an Education Spring Is Beginning to Bud | janresseger

  4. Pingback: While Teachers’ Walkouts Highlight Inadequate Funding of Schools, Inequity Remains Unaddressed | janresseger

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