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Point of View: How Oklahoma's teachers can win

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Eric Blanc
Eric Blanc

Inspired by the victorious strike in West Virginia, tens of thousands of Oklahoma teachers one year ago walked out to demand the funding that their schools and students deserved. Yet after nine days of shuttered schools, the action was called off without having won any additional funding. Thousands of educators were left angry and frustrated.

Why was Oklahoma’s strike significantly less successful than the West Virginia action or the Arizona walkout that followed? One major reason was that the Oklahoma walkout’s organizers, both among the union leaders and rank-and-file, failed to clearly spell out where the funding for schools should come from.

Unlike in the other states that experienced strikes in 2018, Oklahoma’s movement did not make it clear to the public or to those in power that there is only one viable solution to the crisis of public education: increasing taxes on corporations and the rich. As such, state leaders in Oklahoma were able to plead poverty and effectively wait out the walkout.

The experience of West Virginia and Arizona shows that the demand for progressive taxation is the only compelling response to the refrain of pro-business legislators in Oklahoma and elsewhere that the resources simply don’t exist to full fund schools.

Politicians tell us that citizens don’t want their taxes raised. There is some truth to this. In 2016, for example, Oklahoma’s voters roundly rejected a regressive 1 percent sales tax increase to pay for schools. But an October 2017 poll found that a large majority of Oklahomans favor fully funding schools and other state services through raising the income tax on the rich, ending corporate tax breaks, and increasing the gross production tax on oil and gas.

Corporate-bought politicians, Democrats and Republicans, claim that raising taxes only on one layer of the population is unjust. But increasing taxes on the rich, far from being discriminatory, would simply bring us back to the situation that existed before decades of bipartisan, big-business tax cuts decimated public services all across the country. That’s why West Virginian strikers focused their fire on the out-of-state companies that have been making billions off their natural gas resources. Chants of “Tax our Gas!” echoed in the Capitol rotunda daily. Likewise, Arizona’s "Red for Ed" movement raised the call to tax billionaires to provide a quality education for their state’s children.

The battle for quality public schools in Oklahoma is far from over. Oklahoma’s teachers can win like their counterparts elsewhere. But to build the schools our students deserves requires that we compel our legislators to make the rich and corporations pay their fair share.

Blanc, a former teacher in the Bay Area, writes on labor movements. He is the author of the new book, "Red State Revolt: The Teachers’ Strike Wave and Working-Class Politics" (Verso 2019).

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