Budget Cuts Funding Oklahoma

Jan Resseger: The Single Best Article About the Oklahoma Teachers’ Strike

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I had planned to write a post about the excellent article in the New Yorker about the Oklahoma teachers’ strike, but discovered this morning that Jan Resseger, one of my favorite bloggers, beat me to the punch. The article by Rivera Galchen clearly connects the red state anti-tax policies and the underfunding of schools.

She writes:


Watching teachers walk out this spring has startled America in these discouraging times, but nowhere was it as moving as in Oklahoma. The teachers walked out, and, grateful that teachers had figured out a way to expose desperate conditions in the schools, school superintendents and school boards—the management—shut down school for two weeks and walked with their teachers in gratitude. At the statehouse itself the protestors walked into a brick wall. More than just demonstrating what is missing from their classrooms, they showed what decent concern for our children would require of us as citizens and what—across too many of our states—one-party, anti-tax state legislators and governors are quite satisfied to deny.

Rivka Galchen profiles the Oklahoma walkout in this week’s New Yorker magazine. Galchen, who accompanied and learned to know many teachers, reflects on her own experience of the strike and on the lives of teachers she came to know.

Even before the strike when they worried about a possible walkout, members of the legislature proposed a modest raise. But teachers, desperate about the conditions for children in their schools, refused to cancel the walkout. Galchen writes: “Teachers in Oklahoma are paid less than those in West Virginia, which spends forty percent more per pupil than Oklahoma does… In response to the threat of a walkout, the Republican-dominated Oklahoma legislature offered teachers a pay raise of around six thousand dollars a year. It funded the raise with an assortment of tax bills, most of which disproportionately affect the poor—a cigarette tax, a diesel tax, an Amazon sales tax, an expansion of ball and dice gambling, and a five-dollar-per-room hotel-motel tax. The Republicans touted the move as historic, and it was: the legislature hadn’t passed a tax increase since 1990.”

Galchen carefully defines the constraints placed on the state by years of anti-tax governments: “Oklahoma has essentially been under single-party rule for about a decade. The state legislature is eighty percent Republican, and in the most recent midterm elections the Democrats didn’t field a candidate in nearly half the races. Governor Fallin is in her eighth year, and during her tenure nearly all state agencies have seen cuts of between ten and thirty percent, even as the population that those agencies serve has increased. A capital-gains tax break was configured in such a way that two-thirds of the benefit went to the eight hundred wealthiest families in the state. An income-tax reduction similarly benefited primarily the wealthy. The tax on fracked oil was slashed, and when it was nudged back up—it remains the lowest in the nation—the energy billionaire and political kingmaker Harold Hamm, whose estimated net worth is quadruple the budget that the legislature allocates to the state, stood in the gallery of the capitol, letting the lawmakers know that he was watching. Reversing tax cuts is never easy, but it’s almost impossible in Oklahoma. In 1992, a law was passed requiring that any bill to raise taxes receive the assent of the governor and three-quarters of the legislature.”

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