“Our students deserve more,” was the message of 30,000 striking Oklahoma teachers and their supporters at a rally at the state Capitol on April 2, and they vowed to continue their strike until lawmakers hear their voice.
Last week Oklahoma lawmakers thought that they had staved off a teachers’ strike by passing a new tax bill, HB 1010xx, which provides revenue to pay for an average $6000 a year raise for teachers, but striking teachers urged lawmakers to find more money to help their students get a quality education.
“Students, parents, and teachers have been negatively affected by 11 years of cuts to classrooms,” said Alicia Priest, president of the Oklahoma Education Association (OEA). “They see broken chairs in classrooms, out of date textbooks that are duct taped together, and class sizes have ballooned.”
Priest said that there is a bi-partisan deal on the table to add $100 million to the $400 million in new taxes for education and other public services that Oklahoma lawmakers approved last week.
“Unfortunately the deal to provide the additional $100 million was left unfinished (on Monday) because the House of Representatives adjourned without taking action on the deal,” Priest said.
“That’s why we’ll be back at the Capitol April 3, and the walkout will continue,” added Priest.
The Oklahoma Senate on March 28 approved HB 1010xx.
The next day, the state House of Representatives approved the bill and sent it to Gov. Mary Fallin, who said that she would sign the new revenue bill.
At the time of the passage, Priest called the new tax bill a good down payment on much needed improvements for Oklahoma’s schools.
But Priest also said that the state needed to find more revenue to fix a broken education system that has been damaged by more than a decade of budget cuts.
Lawmakers and the governor were patting themselves on the back after passage of the new tax bill and were hoping that its passage would stave off the planned April 2 strike.
But then special interests intervened, and the deal that had been supported by OEA and the American Federation of Teachers-Oklahoma City began to unravel.
The hotel/motel lobby began to complain about a new $5 per night fee on hotel and motel stays that was included in HB 1010xx.
Lawmakers responded by deleting the new fee, which lowered HB 1010xx estimated new revenue by about $25 million.
The deal alarmed teachers, who feared that other special interests would seek to eliminate other new sources of revenue, and on March 30, Priestly announced that the strike planned for April 2 would still take place.
The importance of the passage of HB 1010xx cannot be underestimated.
Tax cuts have been the mantra of state leaders since the mid-2000s.
But the tax cuts have come with a price.
Lost revenue resulting from tax cuts have made it difficult for the state to fund basic services.
Public education has been hit the hardest.
Since 2008, spending per pupil has decreased by 26.9 percent.
NPR reports that nearly 20 percent of the states public schools have cut back their school week to four days because of the lack of state funding.
The Guardian reports that for the past four years, Oklahoma has led the nation in cuts to its education budget.
Despite these dire circumstances, when HB 1010xx came up for consideration, special interests lobbied hard to keep their taxes from being raised.
None lobbied harder than the oil and gas industry, which has enjoyed preferential tax breaks for more than two decades.
But HB 1010xx raised the gross production tax on oil and gas drilling by a modest 3 percentage points.
To protect its preferential treatment, the oil and gas lobby organized a special lobbying effort on the day before the Senate voted on HB 1010xx.
The lobby’s job seemed to be made easier because it takes a vote of 75 percent in both houses of the legislature to raise taxes in Oklahoma.
But the possibility of a teachers’ strike and the effective mobilization of organized teachers and their supporters coupled with the dire state of Oklahoma’s budget proved more compelling to lawmakers than lobbying by the oil and gas industry.
Despite their victory, Oklahoma teachers decided to press for more funding that would directly benefit their students, and so tens of thousands of the state’s teachers left their classrooms on April 2 to make their voice heard at the state Capitol.
As the Oklahoma teachers’ strike enters its second day, teachers have made it clear that their work stoppage is about more than a pay raise.
Before the strike began, Candice Pierce, a seventh grade teacher, said that she was supporting the walkout “to show that our students matter.”
“It’s not just about teacher pay,” continued Pierce. “It’s about our students getting funding. . . Our students deserve the best books; they deserve the best educators; they deserve everything that’s the best.”