Oklahoma isn’t facing a teacher crisis, but a tax crisis. Simply, Oklahoma can’t give what it doesn’t have. You can see this in by looking at our Highway Patrol and Prisons are dangerously underfunded. This is not to mention other government organizations like the Department of Human Services, or often overlooked state jobs like court reporters, who have gone for more than a decade without a pay raise.
Could some reshuffling be done, cannibalize other state programs to support the monolithic budgetary needs of public education? Sure, but which parks do you want to close? What infrastructure do you want to cancel? What welfare do you want to cut? Who do you want to lay-off? We could do that, in some places we should, but this is not just a teacher crisis. Oklahoma just doesn’t have money.
So the other option, raise taxes.
Many of the current demands on Oklahoma legislatures are to raise the oil excise taxes, the tax on a good once it is drawn out of its original source, back to 7% from its current around 3% with other subsidies paid out to oil and energy companies. That’s certainly one option. I’m not discounting it. But like cutting programs, that will come with consequences too. While increasing the excise tax will relieve current pressures a few things need to be understood about the oil industry. First off, most of the oil which comes from a new well is drilled in the first three years. After that, it trickles for the next twenty. Many of the new wells are already beyond their three-year mark, but many other wells remain yet to be dug. We still have to account for international tampering in the oil industry, but eventually, that will end too. If Oklahoma makes reactionary decisions today to solve near problems, they miss the greatest industry boom in world history when foreign states can no longer artificially hold the price per barrel of oil so low.
So while I agree with many that raising the excise tax today could relieve many of Oklahoma’s numerous hardships, we do so at the cost of many future opportunities. I’m not going pretend it’s an easy decision for lawmakers because they are literally choosing between our children’s education today, or risking those same children’s future employment tomorrow.
That said, taxes don’t just come from energy. The state is already taxed with high property, income, and even a grocery tax, but we also have on the table so-called vice taxes, such as raising sales taxes on alcohol, tobacco, as well as lottery and casino winnings. We also need to talk about a referendum which took place for a 1% sales tax increase that would have translated to a $5,000 pay raise directly to Oklahoma teachers. The voters in Oklahoma have spoken with directly with that one.
They voted “No.”
You can say that this reflects the culture of Oklahoma, which it may, but Oklahoma teachers need to accept it also says something about a state that no longer has faith in the industry. Yes, we aren’t paid well, but few in the state are. But even if Oklahoma teachers are paid better, can educators honestly say that there aren’t still massive roadblocks in the system preventing them from being the best teachers they could be? Here, I’m talking about the endless parade of benchmark testing to ensure that schools pass the test, technology grants with no quality training for its usage and implementation, the high cost of administrative oversight, students missing 10% of their school days for activity absences, and the lavish amounts of money spent on sports facilities when other teachers don’t have classroom book sets. Oklahoma education needs to grapple the reality that major changes are needed within the education system and not just at the state level.
I want to be fair, teaching in Oklahoma has challenges other industries don’t. The hours are murder and the conditions are impossible, especially for new teachers. I’m saying that as someone who has worked in Oklahoma education for three years, and who was deployed twice to Iraq with the US Marines. The resources aren’t there, and the struggle is mostly invisible to parents and the community. But the reason that it is called a teacher crisis and not a statewide budget crisis is because teachers are the largest and most organized publicly paid collective in the state. So it’s much easier for them to make demands upon the state than others.
But Oklahoma isn’t hearing them anymore. As evidenced by the failure of Oklahoma voters to fund their own education system, they aren’t moved by arguments centered around, “for the kids”. This isn’t because they don’t love their kids. It’s because they don’t have faith in Oklahoma schools. They view that whatever funds raised through new taxes levied or programs cut are simply not going to make it to their children, but instead be absorbed by an inefficient education system unwilling to adapt to current needs. And I know the teachers. I was one. My wife is one. Many of the best people I know are still in the industry. But teachers need to deal with the fact that there exists a trust issue between educators and people of the state. Teachers are mobilizing and will probably be making many demands over the next few months; many they will get. However, if some hard conversations don’t begin at the state and local level which demand hard reforms to Oklahoma education, I fear the gap between Oklahoma and her teachers is only going to widen.