April 2 could be momentous day for Oklahoma teachers and state employees.
The Oklahoma Education Association (OEA), on March 8 announced that unless state lawmakers provide for a “significant raise” for teachers and school support employees and restore the funding cut from the state’s education budget, there will be a statewide closure of public schools on April 2.
“Teachers and support professionals of Oklahoma are angry and frustrated with the legislature for not doing its job,” said Alicia Priest, president of OEA. “We have tried several different paths to improve education funding, but none have worked. If the legislature cannot properly fund education and core state services by the legal deadline
of April 1, we are prepared to close schools and stay at the Capitol until it gets done.”
Two days later, the Oklahoma Public Employees Association (OPEA) board of directors voted to develop a work stoppage action plan for state employees. The work stoppage would take place on April 2.
“State employees in all 77 counties are fed up with state leaders who will not act to address state employee pay that is 25 percent below the private sector,” reads a statement issued by OPEA. “They are also tired of politicians who will not vote to raise revenue so core services can be sufficiently funded.”
The state’s failure to adequately fund core services such as education, public health, human services, law enforcement, etc. is the result of an extended shortage of revenue.
The revenue shortage is the result of generous tax breaks given to the oil and gas industry and the absence of other reliable and stable revenue sources.
While being stingy when it comes to funding the state’s core services, Oklahoma lawmakers have been almost philanthropic when it comes to lavishing tax breaks on the oil and gas industry.
US News reports that “Oklahoma has cut educational spending drastically in recent years while granting some of the most generous tax breaks in the country to oil and gas companies.”
The result of this generosity was a steep drop in state revenue even when oil production was booming.
Reuters reports that while oil and gas production boomed, “Oklahoma’s generous tax breaks for horizontal drilling resulted in declining revenue from production taxes,” which according to Reuters cost the state about $800 million in lost revenue between 2008 and 2014.
These tax breaks had been temporary, but in 2014, lawmakers voted to make them permanent.
In doing so, they continued to subsidize the oil and gas industry at the expense of core state services.
In 2017, the Guardian reported that Oklahoma’s lack of funding for public services made it resemble “a failed state” in which “the contract between citizens and public institutions breaks down.”
The Guardian describes a number of failures of the state to provide basic services including its lack of funding for programs that serve Oklahoma residents with mental disabilities. This lack of funding has resulted in a ten-year waiting period for some of these services.
In addition to short-changing its residents, Oklahoma has also been short-changing workers who provide state services. Oklahoma state employees haven’t had a pay raise in nearly 10 years.
And it’s no better for the state’s public school teachers whose average pay is the worst among all states in the US.
Priest said that as result of the low pay, Oklahoma teachers are leaving the state for better paying jobs in Texas and Arkansas.
Oklahoma’s failure to fund education has resulted in larger class sizes, reduced after-school programs, and cuts to other vital education services.
The lack of education funding also has caused nearly 100 of Oklahoma’s 513 school districts to reduce their school week to four days.
Teachers and state employees have been vocal advocates for improving the state’s core services, but lawmakers have ignored them.
Nevertheless, these advocates have persisted and what we’re seeing in Oklahoma, said Priest, is a “grassroots movement” that will no longer stand by and watch while state core services continue to crumble.
“Being last in the country in teacher pay and at the bottom of per pupil funding cannot be our vision for Oklahoma,” Priest said. “Our teacher shortage has reached catastrophic levels. . . We have thousands of full‐time support professionals who live below the poverty line. These people are vital to the day‐to‐day operations of our schools and play a significant role in our students’ lives.”
“We have found we cannot cut our way to prosperity,” continued Priest. “Our health care system is cutting services to our most at-risk populations. That includes children who are also our students.”
Priest went on to say that school districts across the state are preparing to close on April 2 but that a school closure is not OEA’s goal.
“Properly funding education and our state’s core services is the goal,” Priest said.