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Oklahoma Teachers, Ready to Strike, Have an Unlikely Ally in the Fight for Better Pay

Erin Heger

Republican lawmakers in 2013 reduced the state’s top income tax rate and extended tax cuts for oil and gas companies, leaving Oklahoma with a budget deficit that has resulted in drastic cuts to social services, including education.

A former oil industry leader in Oklahoma who once lobbied for slashing tax rates on oil and gas companies is organizing a ballot initiative to increase taxes on those industries to better fund to the state’s educational system, which is so severely underfunded that teachers are planning a strike.

Oklahoma educators could begin their strike April 2 if the GOP-majority legislature doesn’t act to raise teacher pay before then. This comes on the heels of West Virginia teachers striking for better pay and benefits and extracting concessions from the state’s Republican-held government. 

Both my parents were school teachers, and I have four kids who went through the public schools of Oklahoma and I now have grandchildren in school, and I have slowly seen the quality of our education decline,” Mickey Thompson, former president of the Oklahoma Independent Petroleum Association, told Rewire.News. “Many companies who might consider moving to Oklahoma aren’t, exclusively because we don’t support our public schools.”

Thompson is now the director of the nonprofit group Restore Oklahoma Now, which is working to get a tax-hike initiative onto the ballot in November.

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Republican lawmakers in 2013 reduced the state’s top income tax rate and extended tax cuts for oil and gas companies, leaving Oklahoma with a budget deficit that has resulted in drastic cuts to nearly all social services, including education.

Per-pupil spending in Oklahoma is the fourth lowest in the United States at $8,075, and lower than all of Oklahoma’s neighboring states. Oklahoma legislators over the past decade have cut 28 percent of its per-pupil funding—the highest in the nation since the recession, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Class sizes have skyrocketed, textbooks and other materials have become outdated, and nearly 100 school districts across Oklahoma have gone to four day weeks to save money, Thompson said. Teachers in Oklahoma haven’t received a raise in a decade, and in 2016, the average Oklahoma teacher earned $45,276, the second lowest rate in the country.

“It’s a real crisis,” Thompson said.

All of this has left overworked and underpaid teachers ready to walk off the job on April 2 if the legislature doesn’t act to pass teacher pay raises and restore education funding.

“Teachers and support professionals of Oklahoma are angry and frustrated with the legislature for not doing its job. We have tried several different paths to improve education funding, but none have worked,” Oklahoma Education Association President Alicia Priest said in a statement. “If the legislature cannot properly fund education and core state services by the legal deadline of April 1, we are prepared to close schools and stay at the Capitol until it gets done.”

The Republican-controlled legislature promised to pass teacher pay increases in 2016 and 2017, but in the end nothing got done. A ballot initiative to raise sales tax by 1 percent to give teachers a $5,000 raise failed in 2016, earning just more than 40 percent of the vote. The 1 percent sales tax was a hard sell since Republican voters in the state opposed increased taxes and Democratic voters opposed the measure since a sales tax would have hit the poorest Oklahomans the hardest.

Fed up with empty promises by the legislature to address education funding, Thompson co-founded Restore Oklahoma Now last fall. The group filed a petition in December for State Question 795, which would raise the gross production tax rate (GPT) on oil and gas companies in Oklahoma from 2 percent to 7 percent. That’s still lower than the rate in other oil-heavy states. North Dakota’s rate, for example, is 11 percent, and in Texas companies pay a property tax for the oil in the ground, which is not the case in Oklahoma, Thompson said.

Restore Oklahoma Now estimates this tax increase would generate about $330 million in additional revenue, 80 percent of which would go toward a $4,000 pay raise for teachers, another $30 to 50 million to local school districts, and another $30 million to support Early Childhood Learning programs. Although this would not compensate for the $1 billion cut from the educational budget in the past ten years, Thompson said, “it’s a start.”

Hollie Husband has been teaching third grade in Park Hill, Oklahoma, for 13 years. Her school district went to four-day-weeks two years ago, and she shoulders the burden of making sure her students have what they need despite lack of support from the state.

“I do not allow the state to determine how well I do my job,” Husband told Rewire.News. “Every month I will continue to budget for my classroom. More money from the state though would mean I might have enough money for the dental appointments I desperately need or to put back into savings. But at the end of the day I will continue to give my students the best of me.”

Thompson is an unlikely proponent for tax hikes for oil companies. In fact, in the 1990s he helped push through oil industry tax cuts as the head of the Oklahoma Independent Petroleum Association. His efforts and those of his associates helped reduce the GPT from 7 percent to 2 percent. With oil priced at $10-$15 per barrel, the energy companies needed the tax break in order to afford new technologies. The tax break was set to expire in 2015, but lawmakers voted to extend it, which Thompson says is a mistake.  

“I can say with complete certainty, these tax breaks were never intended to be permanent and they certainly weren’t intended to be applied when oil was $80-$120 a barrel,” Thompson said. “That is obscene.”

Education advocates, Democratic lawmakers, and some of their Republican colleagues have pushed to raise oil and gas taxes, but those efforts have ultimately failed.

“The oil industry has done a really good job of supporting key members of the legislature,” Thompson said. “We did a good job when I was running it as well, but they have done an even better job of financially supporting their friends at the capitol, and legislative leaders both current and past have not been willing to challenge or introduce legislation that would take away this particular tax break.”

The organization Thompson used to lead, the Oklahoma Independent Petroleum Association, has challenged Restore Oklahoma Now’s ballot initiative in court, filing two state Supreme Court challenges to the proposed ballot question. The court is expected to come to a decision on the validity of the petition this month.

If the petition is ruled valid, Restore Oklahoma Now will have 90 days to gather 123,725 signatures from registered voters and persuade Gov. Mary Fallin (R) to put the issue on the November general election ballot. The process will be expensive, Thompson said, considering the millions of dollars the oil industry is likely to spend on an aggressive campaign against the ballot measure.

“We think it’s time for the oil industry to give up this sweetheart deal,” Thompson said. “We understand they don’t want to. It’s their job to cater to their stockholders. It’s not their job to take care of the school children. It’s the legislature’s job to take care of the school children.”

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