The state also just weathered the turbulent four-year term of Janet Barresi, the former state Schools Superintendent who divided and conquered, and then, fortunately, lost by a landslide in a Republican primary in November. The new superintendent, seemingly the less contentious Joy Hofmeister, has actually announced a plan to raise teacher salaries, but the state faces a whopping $611 million budget shortfall, and it might even get larger. Where’s the money for the raise going to come from?
It’s an understatement to argue there’s a public school education funding crisis here, yet some lawmakers seem focused on keeping quiet whatever small voice educators have here in trying to rectify the situation, and it’s petty, mean, ideological and typical of our current Republican-dominated legislature. Teachers are not our enemies. They’re our hope in this place.
House Bill 1749, sponsored by state Rep. Tom Newell, a Seminole Republican, would prohibit the state from taking out payroll deductions for union dues in teachers’ checks. The bill has passed the House 59-39 and will be considered by the Senate, where it seems likely to pass out of the General Government Committee.
Newell recently argued that Oklahoma shouldn’t “subsidize a union that collectively bargains against the people of Oklahoma,” a piece of hyperbole that it doesn’t take an English professor to deconstruct. Here’s my super intellectual, Derridean take on it: How does a simple, standing entry in a computerized payroll system translate into “subsidize” and how does a teachers’ union work “against the people of Oklahoma,” especially when average teacher salaries here are usually, on a year-to-year basis, only above those in Mississippi, our base comparison state in most things mediocre?
First, is there really any cost at all in the deduction process? If it’s that much, then let’s eliminate all government payroll deductions. While we’re at it, let’s go completely back to just paying everyone in cash. That will save some money, won’t it?
Newell’s point of “going against the people of Oklahoma,” of course, is that the unions are considered political in that they support the welfare of teachers, but other electronic transfers go to organizations, such as banks and insurance companies, and they have their own political agendas and lobbies and, frankly, are far more political and more powerful than the Oklahoma Education Association and the Oklahoma City American Federation of Teachers.
Here are just a few of the ways teachers, who simply want a livable wage and decent working conditions, “go against the people of Oklahoma”:
They teach children here to read.They teach children here how to write.They teach children here how to do basic math.They teach children here basic scientific methods.
I know the whole science thing rankles many of today’s Oklahoma lawmakers, especially when it comes to studying the reasons for all our earthquakes and climate change, and maybe that includes Newell and Dahm. I don’t know. We do need doctors in the state, especially in rural Oklahoma, and better medical outcomes.
The bill is at least tangentially related to the primarily conservative-backed movement to “reform” public schools, which includes a push for private-school vouchers and an emphasis on high-stakes testing, which damages the reputation and can throw into chaos schools with the most low-income students. Some proponents of this movement argue teachers’ unions are the main obstacle to children’s education.
“Teach your children well,” goes the song by Graham Nash, but that means more than just feeding them father’s dreams. Public schools deserve the culture’s commitment and support. The vast majority of teachers here deserve basic respect and a living wage.
The other argument thrown out in favor of this bill is that it wouldn’t be that difficult for teachers to simply pay their dues each month with an automatic transfer from their banking account or with a check. But that goes for many deductions. Why not even end automatic tax collections deduction and make it the responsibility of all state employees to pay up each month? Collecting dues for these organizations, as it has been done for years, is hardly a burden.
In the end, the pettiness of this bill is glaring. It will do nothing to weaken the two organizations. It’s just another hassle for teachers and another way in which they feel unappreciated. It also gives them another reason to leave Oklahoma.
Kurt Hochenauer is an English professor at the University of Central Oklahoma and author of the Okie Funk blog. He believes Oklahoma teachers deserve a break.