Desks in a classroom.
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The national significance of Oklahoma’s teacher walk-out

Updated

There are areas across the country where policymakers refuse to make necessary investments in education, but some of the details in this Washington Post  piece on Oklahoma put conditions in the Sooner State in an especially unflattering light.

[Spending cuts] in Oklahoma also had dire consequences for schools. Districts have not been able to maintain buildings, so students shiver through the winter in classrooms with faulty heating and become accustomed to a rotating cast of teachers. Many school districts have moved to four-day school weeks because they cannot afford to keep the lights on for five days.

Adjusted for inflation, the amount the state spends per student has fallen nearly 30 percent over the past decade, according to the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

The report added, “Oklahoma’s schools and educators have endured some of the steepest cuts in education in the last decade, reductions that are evident in dwindling supplies, aging textbooks and the pay stubs of teachers. Before last week, state lawmakers have not raised the minimum salary for teachers in a decade, making them among the worst paid in the nation.”

It’s against this backdrop that thousands of Oklahoma educators launched an organized walk-out today, heading to the state capitol to demand increased – and long overdue – investments in public education.

State lawmakers approved a modest increase in teacher pay last week, but it’s well short of what the educators requested, and it doesn’t include related investments in schools, supplies, and materials.

And while we watch this dispute proceed, let’s not forget the role Republican governance played in creating this mess in the first place.

The Associated Press published a striking piece a couple of weeks ago on Oklahoma’s politics and the real-world impact far-right policymaking has had in one of the nation’s reddest red states.

When the GOP took full control of Oklahoma government after the 2010 election, lawmakers set out to make it a model of Republican principles, with lower taxes, lighter regulation and a raft of business-friendly reforms.

Conservatives passed all of it, setting in motion a grand experiment. Now it’s time for another big election, but instead of campaigning on eight years of achievements, Republicans are confronting chaos and crisis. Agency budgets that were cut during the Great Recession have been slashed even deeper. Rural hospitals are closing, and teachers are considering a statewide strike over low wages. […]

Oklahoma’s woes offer the ultimate cautionary tale for other states considering trickle-down economic reforms.

You’d be forgiven for thinking this dynamic seems familiar. Under former Gov. Bobby Jindal (R), Louisiana Republicans took control, cut taxes, and slashed spending. The result was a fiscal crisis and weakened public services. Under former Gov. Sam Brownback (R), Kansas Republicans took control, cut taxes, and slashed spending. The result was a fiscal crisis and weakened public services.

And under Gov. Mary Fallin (R), the same experiment has unfolded the same way.

It’s reached the point at which some school teachers – even in areas where schools can’t afford five-day weeks – feel the need to work at Walmart on nights and weekends. One principal said earlier this year she has to hope Walmart doesn’t offer those teachers full-time employment opportunities – because if it did, those educators would be paid better by the stores than by the local schools.

Why doesn’t Oklahoma just raise taxes and fix the problem? Even many GOP policymakers in the state are willing to do that, but as the CBPP recently explained, Oklahoma “requires three-fourths [majorities] in both houses, plus the governor, to approve any bill that raises revenues.” The gimmick is another feature of Republican governance: it’s easy to approve legislation to ensure the state has less revenue, but it’s extremely difficult to pass bills that bring in more revenue.

Even if you’re nowhere near Oklahoma, you should still care – because, with the Republican Party deeply committed to trickle-down economics, it matters when we’re confronted with fresh evidence that this model clearly and painfully does not work.

Indeed, let’s not forget that shortly after the 2012 elections, with Kansas’ economic experiment already underway, then-Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said of the Kansas plan, “This is exactly the sort of thing we want to do here, in Washington, but can’t, at least for now.”

GOP policymakers look at these experiments as the kind of policies that should be imposed on the nation. When the policies fail, Americans should take note.