Oklahoma

Oklahoma teachers have been on strike for nearly two weeks, demanding pay raises and increased funding for public schools. An easy source of that revenue could come from ending generous tax breaks for the oil & gas industries.

Teachers have been on strike since April 2, kicking off the statewide school shutdown with a rally of 20,000 to 30,000 educators at the state capitol. However, most state lawmakers were absent that day, and Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin (R) was not at the capitol. Teachers in Tulsa, Oklahoma, walked the 110-mile distance between their city and the state capitol to join the call for more school funding.

More than 500,000 of the state’s approximately 700,000 public school students have been out of class due to school closures as a direct result of the strike. Even though Gov. Fallin signed legislation approving $450 million in new funding for increasing teacher salaries by an average of $6,100 per teacher, the figure still falls short of what teachers are asking for.

The Oklahoma Education Association (OEA) is demanding a raise of $10,000 per teacher over the next three years, amounting to approximately $600 million. OEA also wants a $5,000 raise for school support staff, like bus drivers, janitors, and secretaries over a three-year period, as well as $200 million in public school funding, a $213 million pay increase for all state employees, and an additional $256 million in healthcare funds. OEA’s demands would cost $812 million the first year, $321.5 million the second, and $275.5 million for the following year.

“Our teachers, they use their own money to get a lot of stuff for the classroom,” Camdyn Steele, an eighth-grade student at Thoreau Demonstration Academy in Tulsa, Oklahoma, whose mother is a teacher, told Grit Post at the rally. “The state really needs to help with that and get money for our schools.”

Oklahoma
Oklahoma teachers rallying at the state capitol in Oklahoma City on April 2. (Photo: Grit Post)

While the OEA’s list of demands sounds costly, Oklahoma’s Republican-controlled legislature could easily find the extra revenue needed to re-open Oklahoma’s public schools by cutting back on some of the state’s oil & gas tax breaks, which are among some of the most industry-friendly in the United States.

In a 2016 investigation, Reuters found that, during the horizontal drilling boom of 2006 to 2014, Oklahoma taxed drilling at a rate of just one percent. And currently, any new well in Oklahoma is taxed at just two percent for the first three years of drilling. The Oklahoma Policy Institute estimates that restoring the rate to seven percent would bring in an estimated $300 million per year in new tax revenue. Gas-rich states like North Dakota and Texas taxed horizontal drilling and oil production at much higher rates and garnered far more revenue.

In North Dakota, the horizontal drilling tax rate was 11.5 percent. In Texas, the rate was 4.6 percent for oil drilling, and 7.5 percent for natural gas drilling. Between fiscal years 2012 and 2015, the tax break bled Oklahoma of $1 billion in tax revenue, according to Reuters. In 2015 alone, the tax break cost the state $470 million.

As the below chart shows, Oklahoma and Texas had comparable oil production growth rates in the 10-year window Reuters studied. However, while Texas reaped nearly $6 billion in tax revenue from drilling in 2014 alone, Oklahoma got less than $1 billion in revenue that year. Consequently, Oklahoma’s school funding on a per-student basis dropped by 24 percent between 2008 and 2016.

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Data by Oklahoma, North Dakota, and Texas tax and budget offices. Chart by Reuters

In a phone interview, Ed Allen, president of the Oklahoma City chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, said the recent funding increase is a definitive victory, given that Oklahoma has had a required three-fourths majority to pass any new tax increases for more than 25 years. However, he said public schools still need more financial support to adequately serve students.

“There’s not enough general appropriations in there for textbooks, or just running your schools in general,” Allen told Grit Post. “We’ve had a decade of continual cuts in education.”

Allen said the ongoing strike following the new revenue is a result of teachers feeling like they have the wind at their backs, given the recent victory West Virginia teachers had following a statewide strike.

“There’s such distrust with the legislature and the teachers feeling like, if we don’t get it now, we’ll never get it,” Allen said.

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A striking Oklahoma teacher shows off her sign at the April 2 rally. (Photo: Grit Post)

Despite the ongoing school shutdown, teachers are making sure their students get to eat while they’re not in class. For the last week and a half, striking teachers worked in tandem with cafeteria staff to serve approximately 17,000 sack lunches to students in Oklahoma’s two largest school districts, according to the Associated Press. Teachers made use of school buses to make school cafeterias mobile in order to serve lunch at community centers, local parks, and churches.

In addition to the teachers, local nonprofits are stepping up to make sure students are fed. The AP reported that the Community Food Bank of Eastern Oklahoma, which is based in Tulsa, has been serving roughly 800 lunches per day since April 2.

“A lot of them, the only meal they get that’s hot is in school,” Broken Arrow High School teacher Jimmy Burdette told the AP.

A poll released last Friday showed that 72 percent of registered voters in Oklahoma supported the teacher strike.

Gov. Fallin did not return Grit Post’s requests for comment.

 

Carl Gibson is a politics contributor for Grit Post. His work has previously been published in The Guardian, The Washington Post, The Houston Chronicle, Al-Jazeera America, and NPR, among others. Follow him on Twitter @crgibs or send him an email at carl at gritpost dot com.

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