In an extraordinary NY Times piece, Dana Goldstein profiles the plight of public school teachers in Oklahoma, where salaries are third-lowest in the United States. Only in Mississippi and South Dakota are salaries lower for teachers. Oklahoma teachers are preparing to strike as their West Virginia peers did earlier this month.
“When teachers… (in Oklahoma) last went on strike, in 1990 for four days, they won a raise and limitations on class sizes. But that was the last time the Oklahoma Legislature raised taxes. In 1992, anti-tax activists successfully organized a ballot referendum to require a three-quarters majority in both the state House and Senate to raise new revenue and today, Oklahoma is one of 13 states that require a supermajority to impose new taxes… (E)ver since the referendum passed, it has become an insurmountable barrier for attempts to increase school spending. The 1990 class size reductions were scrapped for lack of funds. Since 2008, Oklahoma has cut its per-pupil instructional funding by 28 percent—the largest cut in the nation, according to an analysis by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities….” Goldstein reports that Oklahoma teachers have not had even a modest raise for ten years.
According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities report that Goldstein cites, Oklahoma is among seven states that have cut income taxes since 2008, further undermining these states’ capacity to recover from the Great Recession—Arizona, Idaho, Kansas, Michigan, Mississippi, North Carolina and Oklahoma.
Many of the teachers Goldstein describes are working second jobs. She profiles one Oklahoma teacher, a mother whose three children qualify for the Children’s Health Insurance Program and for federally subsidized Head Start preschool. For them, the state’s fiscal straitjacket is daunting: “In 2016, voters rejected a ballot measure that would have increased education funding through an additional one percent sales tax. More recently, a legislative proposal called Step Up Oklahoma would have funded $5,000 raises by increasing gas and tobacco taxes and modestly raising production taxes on the energy industry. It was supported by Gov. Mary Fallin, a Republican, the teachers union and a coalition of business leaders.” But “63 members of the state House of Representatives voted for it, and 3 against, short of the required 75 percent supermajority. A quarter of Republicans and more than two-thirds of Democrats opposed the bill. The Platform Caucus, a group of Republican opponents, issued a statement saying the tax increases would have undone the benefits of President Trump’s tax cuts… Democratic opponents said the plan was too easy on oil and gas, while raising taxes too high on the wind industry. They also asked for an increase in income taxes on high earners.” In Oklahoma, neither party prioritized paying teachers.
The Oklahoma legislature has valued school facilities over the teachers who work with children: “Local districts can use property taxes and bonds to pay for facilities, and many of the school buildings themselves are beautiful… But most instructional costs are covered by the state, where laws and politics make it difficult to raise taxes. And it is inside the classroom that students and parents have noticed the impact of depressed state budgets.” Twenty percent of school districts in Oklahoma have moved to a four day week.
Arizona’s public school teachers are also underpaid, although on top of austerity budgeting in Arizona, another primary cause is the growing diversion of tax dollars to massive privatized voucher schemes. In Arizona, a grassroots coalition of parents, teachers and community members, Save Our Schools Arizona, secured enough signatures to let voters decide Proposition 305 by referendum in November. Proposition 305 challenges a new law passed by the legislature and signed by the governor to expand Arizona’s Empowerment Scholarship Education Savings Accounts—a type of vouchers—to make all 1.1 million public school students across the state eligible (although the program would initially be capped at 30,000 students). On Wednesday of this week, the Arizona Supreme Court upheld a lower court decision—permitting Save Our Schools Arizona’s Proposition 305 to appear on the November ballot.
Goldstein considers three states, Oklahoma, West Virginia and Arizona, where organized teachers are rising up not only to increase their salaries but also to improve the conditions for children in the schools where they work: “All three states are paragons of austerity budgeting, guided by a belief that taxes should be as low as possible to encourage people to spend more and companies to move there and grow.” West Virginia’s successful strike for a long-overdue 5 percent raise has bolstered the resolve of teachers themselves to protest austerity budgeting in Oklahoma and Arizona. And in Arizona, teachers are a central part of the grassroots uprising against Arizona’s Empowerment Scholarship Accounts.
Rutgers University school finance expert, Bruce Baker suggests we reconsider the role of taxation, something many of us forget about as we grumble that our own taxes are too high: “Let’s step back for a moment and consider broadly the provision of public goods and services through a system of taxpayer support… Investment in public schooling is investment in ‘human capital,’ and the collective returns to that investment are greater than the sum of the returns reaped by each individual who furthers her education. We invest public resources into the education of the public, for the benefit of the public.”