By Heidi Brandes
OKLAHOMA CITY (Reuters) – Thousands of Oklahoma teachers packed the state Capitol on Monday to press the Republican-dominated legislature to enact a capital gains tax overhaul that educators said could help end a statewide walkout now in its second week.
During a rally filled with live music and speeches, the teachers called for increased spending for an education system where inflation-adjusted funding per student dropped by 28.2 percent between 2008 and 2018, the biggest reduction of any state, according to the nonpartisan Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
“We are asking them to fully fund the future and create sustained revenue,” said Jenni Morrison, 37, a teacher from Edmond who has been at the Capitol every day since the strike began on April 2.
Public schools serving about 500,000 of the state’s 700,000 students were closed on Monday. That includes Oklahoma City and Tulsa, which said they would close again on Tuesday.
Organizers said Monday’s protest could be the largest since the walkout began, drawing as many as 40,000 people. Groups offering support handed out free pizza and coffee. More than 100 lawyers backing the teachers and dubbed “the women in black” for dressing in dark clothing met lawmakers.
Since late March, lawmakers have approved nearly $450 million in new taxes and revenue to help fund teachers’ pay and education, but that is still short of the $600 million being sought by teachers.
Lawmakers on Monday discussed a bill that would remove a tax exemption on capital gains and bring in about $100 million. If enacted, the union has said it would be a major step toward ending the strike.
They also want lawmakers to implement a hotel tax that would bring in an estimated $50 million.
The strike has garnered strong public backing, with a statewide survey from Sooner Poll last Friday showing that 72.1 percent of respondents supported the walkout.
A West Virginia strike last month ended with a pay raise for teachers. Educators in other states, increasingly angry over stagnating wages, are also considering walkouts.
Opponents of the Oklahoma tax hikes said lawmakers could bolster education spending by cutting bureaucracy and waste rather than raising taxes.
The new taxes and revenue approved by lawmakers translate into an average teacher pay raise of about $6,100.
Teachers are seeking a $10,000 raise over three years. The minimum salary for a first-year teacher is currently $31,600, state data shows.
(Reporting by Heidi Brandes; Writing and additional reporting by Jon Herskovitz in Austin, Texas, and Peter Szekely in New York; Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Peter Cooney)