OKLAHOMA CITY, Oklahoma — Teachers across the nation took notice after West Virginia’s strike prompted state legislators to increase pay for all state employees 5 percent. Now, Oklahoma teachers, who make less than the teachers in every other state, are gearing up for a mass walkout April 2, the day after the state Legislature is mandated by law to pass an education budget.
In an attempt to avert a walkout, Republicans in Oklahoma’s House of Representatives unveiled a plan Thursday that would increase starting teachers’ pay $10,000 and 20-year veteran teachers’ pay $20,000 over six years. The program, expected to cost $700 million, does not restore other school funding or include raises for school support staff.
There’s also a catch: They’ve offered no proposed budget cuts or tax increases to pay for it, so teachers are skeptical.
“We are beyond upset that they would have the audacity to suggest such a pathetic plan to us. It’s just another example of how they do not value teachers,” said Lyndsey Stuart, a history teacher at Bartlesville High School in northeast Oklahoma. “We are not ignorant and will walk on April 2 unless they get a package together.”
Oklahoma teachers earned an average of $42,460 per year in May 2016, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The Oklahoma state legislature hasn’t passed a salary increase for teachers in the past 10 years. Stuart has been teaching for 10 years and said she has never had a raise.
“We are graduating students who could go to [the convenience store] QuikTrip and start making more than the teacher who taught them,” Stuart said.
Oklahoma school funding per student has also plummeted by 28.2 percent since 2008, more than any other state.
“Teachers are ready to walk for lower class sizes, for materials, for their students, for pay increases for themselves and support professionals so that we have people to stay in the state and teach and work with our children,” Alicia Priest, president of the Oklahoma Education Association, said.
The Oklahoma Education Association’s proposal includes a $10,000 raise for teachers spread over three years, with a $6,000 raise in 2019. And while the House Republican plan only increases teachers’ salaries, the Oklahoma Education Association’s proposal also includes a $5,000 raise for school support personnel like bus drivers and food service workers, as well as a raise totaling $213 million for all other state employees.
In addition to staff salary increases, the proposal also restores $200 million in funding for schools. There is also a proposal for a $255.9 million in health care funding for the next two years. In total, the proposals would cost the state $1.4 billion over three years.
Since a ballot initiative in 1992, Oklahoma has required a 75 percent supermajority of the Legislature for any tax increase to pass. The Oklahoma Senate passed a 12.7 percent salary increase for teachers earlier in the week but did not get the votes to raise revenue to support that increase.
Oklahoma has decreased income tax revenue dramatically since the recession in 2008, as seen in this Pew Charitable Trust graphic. Oklahoma raised 17.8 percent less tax revenue in the second quarter of 2017 than the state did at its peak in 2008.
The state also decreased the gross production tax on new oil and natural gas wells from 7 percent to 2 percent in 2015. The Oklahoma Education Association doesn’t have a specific plan in mind to pay for the proposals, but it says plans like eliminating the capital gains tax exemption, increasing the cigarette tax, and raising the gross production tax back to 7 percent could raise the money needed to fund education in the state.
Many teachers have left the state to teach elsewhere or have left the profession altogether. The average salary for teachers in the seven-state region of Arkansas, Colorado, Kansas, Missouri, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Texas was $48,103 in September 2017. Oklahoma was last in the region, with an average salary of $45,245. New Mexico has the second-lowest salary in the region, with teachers earning on average $47,500, while Texas’ teachers earn $52,575 on average.
Oklahoma’s 2016 Teacher of the Year, Shawn Sheehan, moved to Texas the year after she won.
Because of this talent drain, there are now around 2,000 teachers in the state who are teaching without education degrees; they have so-called emergency certifications.
Bartlesville has been at the forefront of the Oklahoma teachers movement. Because Oklahoma law prohibits employees from striking, the Bartlesville Board of Education authorized school closures beginning April 2 to allow teachers to walk out and protest for school funding and salary increases for state employees.
The board also came up with its own proposals to fund teachers and schools. Teachers in the district began a program called Teacher Tuesdays, which allows a few employees each week to take unpaid personal days to lobby the state legislature for improvements in work environments.
Bartlesville isn’t the only school district that has announced it will follow the Oklahoma Education Association’s lead and close schools beginning April 2. Tulsa School District Superintendent Deborah Gist said earlier this week that the district will be “closed indefinitely until Oklahoma state leaders create a permanent sustainable plan to pay educators the professional salaries they deserve.”
Gist said teachers in her district will also be “working the contract effort,” meaning they will work only the seven hours and 50 minutes per day required by their contracts rather than continue work after school and on the weekend.
Despite the House Republicans’ plan, the teachers are still planning to walk out of their classrooms and to the Oklahoma State Capitol.
“Teachers are against it because it only addressed teacher raises, and even then, it doesn't give us the money we are asking for,” Stuart said. “They also are not presenting a way to pay for it, so without a revenue package, it is, again, empty promises.”
Cover image: Third-grade teacher Lisa Sander says the pledge of allegiance with her class at Mayo Demonstration School in Tulsa on March 12, 2018. The teachers are now only working the hours that they are contractually obligated to work. (Mike Simons/Tulsa World via AP)