By Heidi Brandes
OKLAHOMA CITY (Reuters) - Oklahoma teachers carried their walkout over school funding and higher pay into a ninth day on Tuesday as a union leader declared educators had the advantage in a battle with the Republican-dominated state legislature.
Republican lawmakers said they have made major moves to boost education spending, but it may be difficult to find more money. They have approved nearly $450 million in new taxes and other revenues to help fund teachers' pay raises and boost other education spending since the walkout began on April 2.
This week they blocked a union request to approve a bill to remove a capital gains tax exemption that educators said could bring an extra $100 million to state coffers.
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A nonpartisan poll released last Friday, however, showed 72 percent of responding adult voters in the state supported the walkout.
"Momentum is on our side," said Alicia Priest, president of the Oklahoma Education Association, the state's biggest teachers union.
The walkout has closed public schools serving about 500,000 of the state's 700,000 students. Schools in the state's largest cities, Oklahoma City and Tulsa, were shut on Tuesday and planned to close again on Wednesday.
The Oklahoma strike comes amid a wave of action by teachers in states where budgets have been slashed. A West Virginia strike last month ended with a pay raise for teachers.
Teachers in Arizona, also seeking higher wages and more funding for education, were set for a protest on Wednesday to build support. The protest will not shut schools, local media reports said.
Opponents of the Oklahoma tax hikes say lawmakers could bolster education spending by cutting bureaucracy and waste rather than raising taxes.
"This year's education budget, which spends $2.9 billion (a 22 percent increase), has been signed into law. I don’t anticipate that bill being changed this year," Republican Senate Majority Floor Leader Greg Treat said on Facebook ahead of this week's legislative session.
Thousands of educators packed the state Capitol on Tuesday to urge lawmakers to find money to fund a $10,000 teacher pay raise over three years. Republican lawmakers said they have enough money for a pay raise of about $6,100.
Prior to the funding increase, Oklahoma teachers were among the lowest paid in the United States.
The nonpartisan Center on Budget and Policy Priorities said Oklahoma's inflation-adjusted per student funding fell by 28.2 percent between 2008 and 2018, the biggest reduction of any state.
(Writing by Peter Szekely in New York; Addiitonal reporting by Jon Herskovitz in Austin, Texas; Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe and Dan Grebler)