By Lenzy Krehbiel-Burton
OKLAHOMA CITY (Reuters) – The Oklahoma Senate is set to debate a tax hike package on Friday to raise education funds in the hope of halting a week-long strike by its public school teachers, who are some of the lowest-paid educators in the country.
The strike that started on Monday has affected more than half a million students. It comes after a successful West Virginia strike last month ended with a pay raise and as teachers in other states angry over stagnating wages are considering walk-outs.
The Oklahoma package includes a $20 million internet sales approved by the House on Wednesday, a hotel tax hike expected to generate about another $50 million and a gambling measure that could bring in about another $22 million.
Tens of thousands of teachers have come to the state capitol this week seeking fresh spending for an education system that has seen inflation-adjusted general funding per student drop by 28.2 percent between 2008 and 2018, the biggest reduction of any state, according to the nonpartisan Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
Last week, lawmakers approved the state’s first major tax increase in a quarter century, a $400 million revenue package that would have raised teacher pay by an average of about $6,000.
That was not enough for the teachers, seeking $10,000 over three years. Even with the pay raise already approved by lawmakers, they would still receive lower mean salaries than teachers in every neighboring state, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data showed.
Republican-dominated Oklahoma has the lowest median pay among states for both elementary and secondary school teachers, according to 2017 data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The minimum salary for a first year teacher was $31,600, state data showed.
Oklahoma has some of the lowest U.S. oil and gas production taxes and a major cause for the budget strain comes from tax breaks the state has granted to its energy industry, which were worth $470 million in fiscal year 2015 alone.
When energy prices plunged a few years ago and tax revenue dropped, Oklahoma lawmakers made deeper cuts to education funding, which was already on the decline.
As a consequence of low pay at home and better opportunities across state lines, Oklahoma is grappling with a teacher shortage that has forced some school districts to cut curricula, and go to a four-day school week.
(Reporting by Lenzy Krehbiel-Burton in Oklahoma City and Jon Herskovitz in Austin, Texas; Writing by Jon Herskovitz; Editing by Michael Perry)