Their Pay Has Stood Still. Now Oklahoma Teachers Could Be the Next to Walk. {#iBelieve}

TULSA, Okla. — When she woke up one morning last week, Tiffany Bell, a teacher at Hamilton Elementary School here, had $35 in her bank account.
On take-home pay of $2,200 per month, she supports her husband, a veteran who went back to school, and their three children, all of whom qualify for the Children’s Health Insurance Program, a federal benefit for low-income families. The couple’s 4-year-old twins attend a Head Start preschool — another antipoverty program.
Money is so tight for Ms. Bell, 26, that she had to think twice before spending $15 on Oreos for a class project, in which her third graders removed differing amounts of icing to display the phases of the moon.
She knew it would be hard to support a family on a teacher’s salary. “But not this hard,” she said.
When West Virginia teachers mounted a statewide walkout last month, earning a modest raise, it seemed like an anomaly: a successful grass-roots labor uprising in a conservative state with weak public sector unions. But just a few weeks later, the West Virginia action looks like the potential beginning of a red-state rebellion.
In Arizona, teachers clad in red, the color of the teacher protest movement, have conducted a series of #RedforEd demonstrations demanding higher pay. In Kentucky, teachers have organized rallies to protest proposed cuts to their pensions.
And in Oklahoma, where teachers have not had a raise from the state in a decade, they have vowed to go on strike on April 2 if the Legislature does not act to increase pay and education budgets.
All three states are paragons of austerity-minded budgeting, guided by a belief that taxes should be as low as possible to encourage people to spend more and companies to move there and grow. But one result has been a cutback in education, a sector in which a large and popular work force is finding it has labor muscles to flex after all.
“We are hemorrhaging from a lack of funding,” said Larry Cagle, a Tulsa teacher and organizer of one of several Facebook groups pushing for a walkout. “If I get fired, I get fired. I will absolutely not back down.”

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Oklahomans are not always averse to paying more for education. Local districts can use property taxes and bonds to pay for structures, and many of the school buildings are beautiful. Webster Middle and High School in Tulsa is a pristinely maintained Art Deco castle. In 2015, Tulsa voters passed a $415 million bond to invest in technology and the district’s physical infrastructure.
But most instructional costs are covered by the state, where laws and politics make it difficult to raise taxes. And it is inside the classroom that students and parents have noticed the impact of depressed state budgets.
Webster, where 88 percent of students come from low-income families, has cut its advanced foreign language courses, along with classes in drama and debate. Six miles away, Carver Middle School has rationed paper and there are not enough parts to go around in robotics class, students said.
About a fifth of Oklahoma school districts, mostly in rural areas, are trying an even more drastic way to save money: a four-day week. (They cannot cut the number of instructional hours, so the school days tend to be longer.)
Across the state, teachers say they make ends meet by selling their blood plasma, or by working second jobs as luggage handlers, Uber drivers or in lawn maintenance.
When teachers here last went on strike, in 1990 for four days, they won a raise and limitations on class sizes. But that was the last time the Oklahoma Legislature raised taxes. In 1992, anti-tax activists successfully organized a ballot referendum to require a three-quarters majority in both the state House and Senate to raise new revenue and today, Oklahoma is one of 13 states that require a supermajority to impose new taxes.
Research has found little direct relationship between tax cuts and indicators like job creation. Oklahoma’s economy did well between 2001 and 2014, in part because of a boom in oil and gas. More recently, the state’s economy slowed along with a decrease in oil prices.
But ever since the referendum passed, it has become an insurmountable barrier for attempts to increase school spending. The 1990 class size reductions were scrapped for lack of funds. Since 2008, Oklahoma has cut its per-pupil instructional funding by 28 percent — the largest cut in the nation, according to an analysis by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a liberal-leaning think tank.
The current budget situation is so dire that some superintendents and school boards are supporting, and even helping to organize, the proposed teacher walkout.
Deborah Gist, who as the hard-charging education commissioner in Rhode Island tried to weaken teachers’ seniority protections and often clashed with their union, is now Tulsa’s schools superintendent and is allied with the Oklahoma union — the Oklahoma Education Association — in a fight for more money.
Dr. Gist said she is unable to attract or retain effective educators because they can earn up to $20,000 more per year by moving to Texas or other neighboring states. Because so few licensed teachers are applying for jobs, Tulsa has relied on emergency certifications to hire more than 100 teachers who lack training in education.
“Our teachers in Oklahoma are going above and beyond every single day for an unacceptable and unsustainable salary that doesn’t even provide them with a living wage,” she said.
Teachers in Oklahoma earn $45,000 a year on average, the third-lowest in the country; only those in Mississippi and South Dakota earn less, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. They are doing better, though, than many workers in Oklahoma, which has the third-lowest cost of living and where the average teacher salary is about equal to the median household income.
But teachers, especially those in their 20s and 30s, say they live paycheck to paycheck, without the middle-class stability they expected when they chose teaching as a career, often taking on student debt along the way.
Becky Atherton Dukes, an art teacher at Carnegie Elementary School in Tulsa, pays $400 per month for health insurance for herself and her daughter. She and her husband, a house painter, are expecting a second child, and their day care costs will exceed Ms. Dukes’s pay. “I love my job,” she said. “But it would be nice to be able to afford a family vacation or have money for savings.”
Most here believe there is little hope of avoiding the walkout.
In 2016, voters rejected a ballot measure that would have increased education funding through an additional one percent sales tax. More recently, a legislative proposal called Step Up Oklahoma would have funded $5,000 raises by increasing gas and tobacco taxes and modestly raising production taxes on the energy industry. It was supported by Gov. Mary Fallin, a Republican, the teachers’ union and a coalition of business leaders.
On Feb. 12, 63 members of the state House of Representatives voted for it, and 35 against, short of the required 75 percent supermajority.
A quarter of Republicans and more than two-thirds of Democrats opposed the bill. The Platform Caucus, a group of Republican opponents, issued a statement saying the tax increases would have undone the benefits of President Trump’s tax cuts. “It is unfortunate that lawmakers and special interests are so quick to try and grab that money,” the caucus wrote.
Democratic opponents said the plan was too easy on oil and gas, while raising taxes too high on the wind industry. They also asked for an increase in income taxes on high earners.
Moderate Republicans say colleagues further to the right are wedded to an ideology that no longer makes sense.
“They just won’t raise taxes,” said Representative Earl Sears, a retired principal and the chairman of the House appropriations committee. “We’re at the point where we’ve cut so much, we now have to go in and make investments. If that means raising taxes, so be it.”
Mr. Sears also accused Democrats of wanting the schools crisis to continue, so they could run on the issue in future elections. “They really don’t want to give the Republican Party a victory,” he said.
Indeed, anger about education cuts has helped fuel something of a blue ripple in this Republican-dominated state, with Democrats flipping four legislative seats in special elections in 2017.
After the defeat of the bill, educators began to gather on Facebook and in person to share their frustration. Rank-and-file teachers pushed their union to support their demand that the state act before April 2 or face a work stoppage. The Oklahoma Education Association is now asking for a $10,000 raise for teachers, a $5,000 raise for school support staff and a $200 million increase in schools funding.
On March 12, Oklahoma teachers took their first steps toward a strike, beginning a “work to contract” protest in which teachers marched out of their schools when the last bell rang. They refused to tutor students, email with parents or grade papers after hours.
At Carver Middle School on Tuesday, students applauded as their teachers filed out of the building.
At Carnegie Elementary School, Ms. Dukes reluctantly canceled her students’ annual art show. In preparation, she had meticulously organized and labeled every pinch pot and collage in her classroom. But bringing the event to fruition would have required logging long hours after school and at home, work that she believes entitles her to a raise.
One of her colleagues, she said, had moved away from Oklahoma, and now earns the equivalent of $85,000 per year as a teacher.
Ms. Dukes laughed. “To get her American dream,” she said, “she had to move to China.”
A version of this article appears in print on March 21, 2018, on Page A1 of the New York

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