Oklahoma lawmakers weigh in on teachers' demands, possible strike

Oklahoma teachers plan to go on strike starting April 2nd if the state legislature hasn't addressed funding concerns by April 1st. (KOKH/FILE)

The proposal from the Oklahoma Education Association calling for teacher pay raises and increased education funding has drawn mixed reaction from state lawmakers. Schools could shut down April 2nd if the legislature doesn’t come up with a way to fund teachers’ demands.

House Speaker Charles McCall, R-Atoka, says the Republican Caucus has tried to pass numerous teacher pay raise bills in the past year, but the Democrats have failed to support their measures.

““Time and again, a large majority of our caucus has supported every revenue raising option to provide for a teacher pay raise – without much help from House Democrats,” McCall said in a statement. “It is clear that House Democrats have no intention of helping House Republicans provide a pay raise for our teachers, and that we must use funding measures that do not require Democratic support to pass.”

House Democrats say Republicans haven’t brought any bills to the table that are fair for all Oklahomans.

“It’s absolutely frustrating because we‘ve seen package after package be put up for a vote that has disproportionally affected middle class, working Oklahomans and hasn’t asked the oil and gas industry or those who are making more to pay their fair share,” said Rep. Emily Virgin, D-Norman.

Virgin believes a five percent gross production tax has to be included in an revenue package to create the funding for teacher pay raises. Teachers want a $10,000 pay raise over the next three years.

“I think what the teachers have asked for is totally realistic,” Virgin said. “It’s necessary to stop the bleeding in education and restore some of the cuts that have taken place over the last ten years under Republican leadership.”

Some Republicans aren’t sure it will be possible to meet teachers’ demands.

“For them to ask for that number doesn’t surprise me, but to tell you it’s likely or realistic or even possible, well unfortunately we haven’t even got a $1,000 pay raise for them yet and we’ve been doing a lot of heavy lifting,” said Rep. Todd Russ, R-Cordell.

Russ is the chair of the House Appropriations and Budget Committee on Education. He believes the real problem is how local districts are managing their funds.

“We’ve got to broaden the dialogue about where some of this money has gone,” Russ said. “Have they got some spending problems? I believe they do. Have they got some priorities out of line? I certainly believe the do.”

Federal data shows the state ranks significantly below the national average for spending per student, and Oklahoma teachers are some of the lowest paid in the country.

House Speaker McCall says there will be ongoing discussions in the coming weeks on how the legislature can find more revenue to help our teachers.

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