BY DAVID PERRYMAN
For centuries, March 19 of each year has marked the return of thousands of orange-tailed cliff swallows to the area in and around San Juan Capistrano, CA. The annual 6,000-mile migration of the mud-nesting birds from their winter home in Argentina is one of the most reliable and amazing rituals in the animal kingdom.
Just as predictable as the arrival of the swallows, is the annual ritual of Oklahoma lawmakers filing a plethora of legislation to raise teacher’s salaries. 2017 was no different.
In fact, the defeat of SQ 779 last November has spurred a greater number of teacher pay hike bills than at any time in recent memory. In the House of Representatives, seven or eight bills with names like the Oklahoma Education Act of 2017, the Oklahoma Education Reform Act of 2017 and the Oklahoma Teacher Pay and Incentive Act of 2017 have been filed.
For fear of taking a back seat to the “generosity” exhibited by state representatives, on a single day last month a Senate committee approved not one, not two, but six different senate bills, each touting a great “plan” to give teachers a raise.
The “plans” ranged from $500 per year for 10 years to a single raise of $10,000. Competition for creativity among legislators was intense. One plan called for raises of $1,000 in year one, $2,000 in year two and $3,000 in year three. Another reversed the increments by starting with $3,000 in the first year.
Unfortunately, each and every proposal represented political pandering at its worse. Not one plan included a viable means by which to fund the teacher pay raises. In a state where legislative leadership in either house cannot even fund a five-day school week, it is laughable that they really want teachers to think that they are supportive of a pay raise.
The ruse they are engaged in is the moral equivalent of presenting an essential employee with a beautifully wrapped empty box. Sadly, it happens year after year as Oklahoma teachers are treated like Lucy infamously treats Charlie Brown. The only difference is that it is the Oklahoma Legislature that jerks the football away just as it is within reach.
Honestly, there are many legislators who want to give teachers a raise and they would but for Oklahoma’s self-inflicted financial crisis.
Remember, this year’s revenue failure means that seven of the last 10 state budgets have failed and that the reason for that failure is crystal clear. The legislators who have controlled the budget for the past 10 years do not have the courage to tell the oil and gas industry that it should pay at least the regional average in gross production taxes and do not have the courage to say no to dogmatic ideologists who preach trickle-down economics and do not have the courage to say no to corporate interests that annually receive hundreds of millions of dollars in tax credits and incentives.
Consequently, the state’s revenues are not sufficient to pay incentives and credits and fund government services. Instead, the state borrows money and raises fees to make up for the fact that income taxes have been cut by $1.022 billion per year over the past dozen years while state agencies have faced budget cuts of 40% or more.
Any other state would take steps to resolve the problem but not Oklahoma. In Oklahoma voters go to the polls and pull the same lever expecting a different outcome. Until legislators gain courage, rural health care will not improve, state employees will continue to qualify for food stamps, potholes will not fill themselves and, no, teachers will not receive a raise.
Aristotle said, “One swallow does not a summer make, nor one fine day.” Similarly, one brief moment of hope does not make a person entirely happy. Recurring empty promises of a raise will continue to destroy Oklahoma’s educational system.
Ask any teacher, “It’s no longer the thought that counts.”
— David Perryman, a Chickasha Democrat, represents District 56 in the Oklahoma House