Today marks the second week of the teachers in Oklahoma walking out.
It isn't about their pay, the legislature passed a bill in the last week of March giving them and their support staff pay raises. The governor duly signed the bill and it will start on July 1st, the beginning of the new fiscal year. Incidentally, I also received a pay raise, part of the deal was that state employees received step raises that start on July 1st.
No, this is about the sad state of education funding in general. None of the concerns of schools and districts were addressed, in fact, a hotel/motel tax that focused on this issue was repealed at the same time. So, the raise is a bandaid, the underlying wound remains untreated.
So, what caused this mess?
Essentially Oklahoma started cutting taxes like crazy, along with poor revenue management.
In the mid-1990's the highest tax rates were lowered but a trigger was left in place, if revenues dropped then the tax rate would rise to match. This was very simple solution, it provided tax cuts but only as long as revenues remained stable. While this was somewhat counterintuitive, best to have higher taxes during boom times to build a surplus during lean times so that taxes could be cut, no one complained because needed services were provided, education remained funded and everyone was happy.
Unfortunately the legislature took out the trigger so that when revenues started to decline in 2003 tax rates failed to match. This was still OK, the economy remained in good shape due to booming oil prices. The problem started when oil prices started to decline. Added to this was the move made to lower the oil and gas production tax from 7% to 2%, one of the lowest of not the lowest in the country. To top it off, triggers added by the legislature automatically pushed through tax cuts at the worst possible time.
Not only did education suffer but statewide services suffered. Daycare and services to the elderly, children and disabled left vulnerable Oklahomans without a needed safety net. State troopers faced cuts to the point of mileage limits.
Oklahoma is not the only state to face this, for example Kansas drastically cut taxes only to find themselves scrambling for ways to fund needed services, along with Indiana, Missouri and Mississippi.
This brings us back to Oklahoma. I realize this is a hardship for children and parents, my wife stays home so it is not an extra burden on us. This is not true for other families, luckily many area YMCA's stepped up to provide free daycare and so have many of the local churches. But to continue in this way is not feasible. It is dangerously short-sided, these children need a proper education in order to compete in the modern world. They cannot get a proper education by learning from out-of-date textbooks in crumbling buildings. They cannot learn while shivering in dark rooms or while broiling in the heat. They need to know that adults actually care about them by properly funding education.
So, I say let them stay out as long as they need. One of my friends is a teacher, he went out on a broken foot all last week to demonstrate at the capitol. I was proud to see many of his students join him, even better, the Oklahoma Democratic Party went out to support these teachers and students. They set up booths to register citizens to vote and are supporting teachers and others who want to run for local and state offices. The sad thing is that many of these state legislature politicians run unopposed, once this came to light people began lining up to run against them. I want them to win, local, state and federal. It's time to end the failed experiment that is hurting our future.