Strike shows costs of low funding on schools and teachers

Strike shows costs of low funding on schools and teachers

(Okla.) Now in its second week, the Oklahoma teachers strike has shined a light on the impact of long-term tax cuts in the classroom–and educators have signaled they won’t return until lawmakers find a way to not only boost teacher pay, but school funding overall.

Gov. Mary Fallin tried to avert the strike by signing a bill that provided $50 million in funding for schools, increased teachers' salaries and gave pay raises to support staff. Although teachers groups have applauded the average annual pay bump of about $6,000 they’ll see under the bill, the $50 million provided to schools falls far short of the $200 million they are asking for.

“The Legislature is going to have to get creative,” Ed Allen, president of the Oklahoma City American Federation of Teachers, told The Oklahoman Monday. “We need to look at the big picture. We want to be grateful for the pay increase, which we see as a nice down payment into teacher salaries that make the state more competitive, and there’s been a little down payment on funding–but it’s not nearly enough, and that’s why we’re still out here.”

West Virginia teachers staged a walkout that lasted nine days just weeks before Oklahoma educators announced their own strike. That protest ended in a deal granting 5 percent pay raises to teachers, and sparked rallies in Kentucky and Arizona, with educators in Alaska and New Mexico indicating they could be next.

In response to the decision made by teachers in Oklahoma to continue their strike, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos told the Dallas Morning News that they should “keep adult disagreements and disputes in a separate place,” and instead focus on serving students.

But teachers have said that is exactly what they are trying to do by taking a hard stance on the need for increased state funding in schools and educator salaries. The teachers' union has demanded a $10,000 pay raise over three years, as well as a $200 million increase in education funding, along with raises for support staff and other measures.

Teachers in Oklahoma are among the lowest paid in the country, according to a National Education Association ranking of 50 states and the District of Columbia, and haven't had a raise since 2008. Indeed, the state placed 49th for average teacher salary in 2016, and 47th in expenditures for public K-12 students per student.

In 2017, a third-grade teacher in Oakland begged for school supply money on the side of the road to bring awareness to the lack of resources educators face, while a fifth-grade teacher admitted he gives plasma to supplement his income. Other teachers have reported working multiple outside jobs to pay for classroom supplies or their own living expenses–all factors which have been shown to factor into increased teacher burnout and turnover rates that negatively impact student performance.

And Oklahoma teacher Allyson Kubat recently told CNN that her textbooks are so outdated, that they “talk about going to your librarian so they can talk to you about this new thing called 'the Internet,' and how to look up information on 'microfiche.’"

Just last week, another teacher shared photos of student textbooks so old and worn some are completely missing covers and reference George W. Bush as the current president, as well as desk chairs with entire chunks missing from them.

Once adjusted for inflation, education spending per student in Oklahoma dropped by more than 28 percent between 2008 and 2018, the biggest reduction of any state, according to the nonpartisan Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

Leaders of the teacher strike have called on lawmakers to pass a bill ending the state's capital gains tax deduction as a means of increasing education funding.

According to the state’s Incentive Evaluation Commission, the cost of the deduction totaled about $474 million from 2010 to 2014 while creating just $9 million in revenue growth.

Sen. Dave Rader, R-Tulsa, introduced a bill to repeal the deduction which passed the Senate with bipartisan support. House leaders have refused to allow a vote on the bill in their chamber, however, and industries that benefit from the status quo have risen in opposition to make sure capital gains income remains as is.

If Rader’s bill is signed, the teachers union has said it would be a major step toward ending the strike by providing about $100 million for schools–but until that happens, or lawmakers find a different avenue through which to fund schools, the strike will continue.

“Leadership continues to tell us that capital gains (repeal) is never going to happen–and there’s a little bit of talk that perhaps if you remove agriculture from that, there might be a chance,” Allen said. “I think we need to take the approach of ‘let’s see each day what happens.’ If the Legislature does come up with some new revenue we need to look at it and decide if that’s enough, or if we need to stay out here longer.”

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