After a week of demonstrations and lobbying at the Oklahoma state Capitol, Oklahoma teachers on Friday, April 2 won major victories when state lawmakers passed two new tax bills that nearly double the amount of new education funding.
Since their strike began on April 2, teachers have made it clear that their job action is about more than pay raises; it’s about redefining the state’s priorities.
Teachers want state leaders to put their students first, and they want state leaders to find the resources it will take to invest in their students.
Alicia Priest, president of the Oklahoma Education Association (OEA), said that the passage of two new tax bills, HB 3375 and HB 1019xx, shows that legislators are listening to striking Oklahoma teachers.
HB 3375, also known as “ball and dice,” allows casinos on Native American reservations to offer ball and dice games, which will generate significant new revenue for education, and HB 1019xx requires online retailers such as Amazon to collect sales taxes on purchases.
Priest praised the striking teachers, who “have been passionately advocating for their students and asking the legislature to provide more funding for our classrooms after a decade of neglect of Oklahoma’s public schools.”
“Because of the educators, parents and students who have taken to the Capitol this past week, the new funding for Oklahoma’s students nearly doubled to $92 million,” she added.
But Priest also said that there is more work to do.
She called on Oklahoma’s Gov. Mary Fallin to veto HB 1012xx, a bill that repeals a small tax on hotel and motel stays.
Priest said that passage of HB 1012xx is a step backward from progress that lawmakers had made on education funding.
“We call on Governor Fallin to immediately veto HB 1012xx because it steals $42 million in funding away from Oklahoma’s students,” Priest said.
She also urged lawmakers to pass SB 1086, a bill that eliminates a state income tax deduction on capital gains.
“They can end this walkout with the passage of Senate Bill 1086, which will provide significant and much-needed funding for students,” Priestly said.
SB 1086 would eliminate the deduction of capital gains on the sale of real estate or stock in an Oklahoma-based firm.
The tax break, which was designed to encourage business investment, benefits about 20,000 households or about 1 percent of the state’s households at the expense of education and other vital services.
According to Together Oklahoma, 85 percent of the benefits of the deduction go to people with annual incomes of $200,000 or more.
Rep. Cory Williams, a Democratic lawmaker from Stillwater told NonDoc that the capital gains deduction is a failed incentive that deprives the state of revenue it needs to provide core services such as education.
“We had an independent auditor tell us that this is an upside-down incentive where we have lost $465 million in revenue over a four-year period, (but only) got an additional $9 million in investment across the state because of it,” Williams said.
Priest said that the striking teachers would be back at the state Capitol on Monday morning to urge lawmakers to pass SB 1086.
For the past ten years, leaders of the state have disinvested in public education while at the same time giving tax breaks to the wealthy and special interests.
As a result of this disinvestment strategy, spending per pupil in the state’s public schools has decreased by 26.9 percent since 2008, and for the last four years, Oklahoma has led the nation in the size of education budget cuts.
The impact has been devastating.
Nearly 20 percent of the state’s public schools have cut their school week to four days because they can’t afford to stay open for five.
There isn’t enough money to buy new textbooks, so the ones used by students are outdated and in some cases, must be shared with other students.
Many students go to schools in a severe state of disrepair, but school districts can’t afford their maintenance much less their repair.
School districts also don’t have the money needed to retain qualified teachers, many of whom have left Oklahoma to teach in other states where the pay is better.
But the action by the state’s teachers has given Oklahomans reason for hope, which is why the public has strongly supported the teachers’ action.
Priest said that a survey by Sooner Poll, which she called “a reliable Republican pollster,” showed that 72 percent of those surveyed support the teacher action.
Priest said that this strong support from the public is one reason that teachers and their supporters will continue to fight for their students.
“We will be back at the Capitol on Monday,” said Priest.
“It remains to be seen whether lawmakers will dig in their heels and protect special interests over doing what’s right by students,” she continued. “If lawmakers won’t stand with teachers, support professionals, and students, we’ll work hard to elect education champions who will.”