Oklahoma teachers say it’s time for higher pay and for businesses to pay their ‘fair share’

Oklahoma teachers union leaders say they are preparing for statewide school closures.

CREDIT: Getty Images
CREDIT: Getty Images

As West Virginia teachers in all of the state’s 55 counties continue to strike, Oklahoma teachers are on the brink of doing the same. Oklahoma teachers, who want higher salaries and better health insurance, have discussed starting statewide school closures in the first week of April, when standardized testing happens, according to KTUL. The teachers union is working with school districts on a “school closure strategy” so that teachers can gather at the capitol.

Teachers from Oklahoma City and Tulsa came together on Friday to talk about a possible walkout and 55,000 people are members of a private Facebook group called “Oklahoma Teacher Walkout – The Time Is Now!”

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Oklahoma teachers haven’t had a raise since 2008. The state has the lowest average teacher salary in the nation, according to 2016 Bureau of Labor Statistics data. The average elementary school teacher makes $41,150 and high school teachers can make $42,460. If elementary school teachers wanted to leave Oklahoma to teach in Texas, they could make over nearly $55,700.

“It is beyond time to fund education in the state of Oklahoma,” President of the Oklahoma Education Association Alicia Priest told ThinkProgress. “We’ve cut taxes and given corporate tax welfare giveaways to businesses and it has eroded our state infrastructure to the point of a crisis. Teachers are tired of not having the supports and funding so they can do their jobs adequately in the classroom. We’re losing teachers to other professions and other states.”

A survey last year of 250 Oklahoma teachers who left the state found that the majority of teachers left due to the low pay.

Priest said the Oklahoma Education Association (OEA) conducted a survey on whether educators would support the school closures and 81 percent of them supported it. The OEA has been pushing for a legislative agenda that would allow for a $10,000 raise for teachers and a $5,000 raise for education support professionals over three years. In the first year, teachers would receive a $5,000 raise. Priest said the OEA has been working on this plan and anticipating the possibility of statewide school closures for over a year “because our communities need to understand why we’re doing this.”

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Teachers also want $200 million over three years to restore public education funding according to the OEA website. The union wants a 5 percent cost-of-living increase for retirees, funded through the pension system, and new revenue for health care, mental health, and public safety. They want state employees to receive a $7,500 pay raise.

“I don’t know many teachers who don’t have a second or third job,” Priest said.

House Bill 1033, known as the Step Up Oklahoma Plan, would have given teachers a $5,000 raise and increased the tax on tobacco and gas, according to NewsChannel5, but it was voted down in February.

Shawna Mott-Wright, vice president of the Tulsa Classroom Teachers Association, told KTUL at the time that teachers told her they were leaving because of the vote.

“I’ll finish the school year and then I’m not coming back,” she said one teacher told her.

“I don’t care about party politics on either side. What good has that done us? We just need to get something going now,” she said.

Priest said businesses should “pay their fair share.”

“The fact is we have oil and gas in this state so that’s where they’re going to drill, and raising the gross production tax is one of the methods we have in increasing funding,” she said. “Restoring the income tax on high-wage earners, people making over $250,000, is another way, and that has been cut. So there are many ways that we could raise revenue in our state to support education and our state infrastructure and other services.”

According to TulsaWorld, the state’s 2014 individual income tax cut eliminated $135 million in annual revenue.

She said that should Oklahoma teachers decide to walk out, they already have the support of parent teacher associations, administrator associations, and Oklahoma’s Public Employees Association.

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The West Virginia strike is on its ninth day, and if you include weekends, as journalists did for the 1990 West Virginia strike, it has already exceeded that 11-day strike. When asked whether the West Virginia strike has encouraged teachers to move forward with a statewide strike in Oklahoma, Priest said, “I think it gives hope to our school employees to see others going through the same struggles we are for funding to take a stand and support public education. It gives them the thought that it’s something they can do as well and that strengthens their position and resolve.”