Pressure mounted Tuesday on the Republican-led Oklahoma Legislature to broker a deal on taxes to pay for hundreds of millions in new education spending and avert a threatened strike of teachers next week.
The leader of the state's largest teacher's union said Monday's planned walkout over low pay and funding for schools could end up being more of a one-day celebration if lawmakers can approve a deal this week.
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"Teachers will be here on April 2," said Oklahoma Education Association President Alicia Priest. "They may be saying 'thank you.'"
An Oklahoma teachers walk out would be the second major teachers' strike this year, following one in West Virginia last month that led to a 5 percent pay hike. Arizona teachers also are boosting efforts to organize and may follow.
A starting teacher in Oklahoma makes $31,600, and the average teacher salary ranks 49th among the states and District of Columbia, according to the most recent statistics from the National Education Association. Only South Dakota and Mississippi are lower.
Oklahoma Senate leaders were scrambling to find the votes Tuesday for a nearly $450 million package of tax hikes on cigarettes, motor fuel, lodging and oil and gas production that passed the House late Monday. That bill, along with separate revenue measures to expand tribal gaming and cap itemized income tax deductions, would provide enough money for an average salary hike of $6,100 for teachers, along with raises for education support personnel and state workers.
Oklahoma has a steep hurdle for tax increases, requiring three-fourths of lawmakers to approve. Senate Floor Leader Greg Treat said Tuesday he wasn't sure if they had the votes to pass the package and send it to the governor. Both the increase in the oil and gas production tax from 2 percent to 5 percent and a new $5-per-night tax on hotel and motel stays have never been considered in the Senate.
"I think we're open to the idea," said Treat, R-Oklahoma City. "We don't have a hard count on what we know we can deliver."
It's also not clear if the plan is enough to satisfy teachers, who haven't received a raise since 2007 and have grown increasingly frustrated in recent years over funding cuts to schools.
Priest called the package a good "first step," but wouldn't say if it was enough to avert a prolonged walkout. The union has demanded a $10,000 pay raise for teachers over three years, $5,000 for support personnel and a $75 million increase in funding, and the package approved by the House would not be enough to satisfy all of their demands.
"I see it as a huge step forward, but it's definitely lacking," said Zachary Grimm, a high school Spanish teacher and the president of the local teacher union in the Oklahoma City suburb of Moore. "My teachers and I are still gearing up to walk out on Monday."
About one-third of the state's 512 school districts, including most of its largest, are prepared to close for at least one day. Dozens more are prepared to close indefinitely or have plans to use bad-weather days or add hours to the end of the calendar so classrooms can remain empty.
Priest said whether school closures extend beyond one day depends on individual teachers and local districts.
"I think it's too early to tell one way or another how that plays out," Priest said.
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