Students, Teachers and Democratic Accountability

This past week the Governor of Oklahoma and several state legislators pronounced that “you can’t spend what you don’t have” in response to the state’s teacher walkout, about to enter its second week.

As it turns out, the state budget is not chiseled in stone and handed down from on high; it is the product of the actions of the legislators themselves.

The real problem is that legislators are unwilling to raise the resources required to fund education adequately in Oklahoma and several other Republican-governed states, including Kansas, West Virginia, Kentucky and Arizona.

Adequate funding would require that legislators abandon their persistent and pernicious “small government” mantra, and that they place the needs of the people of the state above those of their wealthy corporate donors.

Across the United States, spending per pupil on primary and secondary education is not low by international standards. The U.S. comes out above average in spending per student, and slightly below the OECD average in terms of effort – that is, spending relative to GDP.

The U.S. spends about $11,400 per pupil on public education. Ultimately, the problem for public education in the U.S. is the unevenness of spending across states (as well as across localities within states).

While New York spends $21,200 per student, Utah spends less than $6600. Arizona comes in at $7489 and Oklahoma at $8082. Oklahoma’s spending per pupil is about $1000 less than Slovenia, a European country with GDP per capita not quite half that of Oklahoma.

After a decade of reduced funding for education, lopping off nearly a quarter of funding to education in real terms according to the Oklahoma Policy Institute, Oklahoma legislators in late March passed a $447 million revenue package to fund significant raises for teachers, support staff and state employees.

The Governor and legislators celebrated, considering their work done. Even though they’d fallen far short of the requests of the teachers to also reverse the massive cuts to school funding – so evident in large class sizes, crumbling textbooks and shortages of teachers and supplies alike — they called for teachers to express gratitude.

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Literature textbooks in use at Heavener High School in Heavener, OK, eastern Oklahoma close to the Arkansas border. Photo provided by Sarah Jane Scarberry to pbs.org.

Three elements of the revenue package are especially noteworthy.

First, this was the first tax increase passed by the Oklahoma state legislature in 28 years, the result of a 1992 referendum requiring three-fourths of the legislature to support a tax increase.

Second, the measure disregarded some major potential sources of revenue, such as the personal income tax, which has a top rate that has been cut repeatedly in recent years, and the capital gains tax deduction, which legislators so far contend is “off the table.”

Third, the revenue package materialized after the preparation of a mass teacher walkout. Only the pressure of the walkout produced results that the legislature had staunchly resisted for years.

Oklahoma legislators now express frustration that the teachers have not responded with expressions of gratitude and a return to the classroom. In addition to the Governor, who condescendingly referred to teachers as teenagers wanting a better car, other legislators have voiced visible displeasure with teachers for their persistence in showing up at the state capital in large numbers on behalf of their cause.

Legislators and the Governor also have resorted to the insulting and now reflexive tactic of claiming (with zero evidence) that protestors are paid agitators.

Why this reaction? Frequently reelected without little or no opposition, these legislators are uncomfortable with the concept of democratic accountability.

Though it may make legislators in Oklahoma, West Virginia, Kentucky and Arizona uncomfortable, democratic accountability is on the rise. The courageous Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School students who started the March for Our Lives movement have given new life to accountability.

Teachers have been empowered by students, and state legislators best take heed.