Concerned citizens of Haskell,Latimer,LeFlore and Pittsburgh Counties 11-16-17
This is the first in a three part series from The Guardian by Russel Cobb, associate professor in modern languages and cultural studies at the University of Alberta.
A teacher panhandles on a roadside to buy supplies for her third-grade classroom. Entire school districts resort to four-day school weeks. Nearly one in four children struggle with hunger.
A city overpass crumbles and swarms of earthquakes shake the region – the underground disposal of oil and gas industry wastes have caused the tremors. Wildfires burn out of control: cuts to state forestry services mean that out-of-state firefighting crews must be called in.
A paralyzed and mentally ill veteran is left on the floor of a county jail. Guards watch for days until the prisoner dies. A death row inmate violently convulses on the gurney as prison officials experiment with an untested cocktail for execution.
Today, as most of us celebrate The Thanksgiving Season, we need to ask ourselves,is this a third world country we’ve heard about? No, this is a view discribing our own failing state of Oklahoma!
Added up, the facts evoke a social breakdown across the board. Not only does Oklahoma lead the country in cuts to education, it’s also number one in rates of female incarceration,places second in male incarceration, and also leads in school expulsion rates. One in 12 Oklahomans has a felony conviction.
It may be hard to believe, but entry-level employees with a high school diploma at the popular convenience store QuikTrip make more than teachers in Oklahoma.
For four years running, the state has led the nation in tax cuts to education, outpacing second-place Alabama by double digits. Years of tax cuts and budget shortfalls mean that Oklahoma has fallen to 49th in teacher pay. Spending per pupil has dropped by 26.9% since 2008.
Shelby Eagan, Mitchell elementary school’s 2016 teacher of the year, decided she’d had enough after a referendum to raise teacher pay through an increase in state sales tax was defeated in last November’s election.
“I would like to have kids some day,” she says. But that’s unlikely for now: her rent has gone up. She also buys her own supplies for her classroom.
Eagan is originally from Kansas City but she loves Oklahoma. She found her calling teaching in an urban elementary school. She teaches the children “how to tie their shoes, blow their noses, have superhero fights that don’t turn violent,” among other things. All of her students are on free or reduced-fee lunch programs. After the referendum defeat of SQ 779, Eagan decided to look elsewhere for a better gig. Shelby Eagan moved back to Missouri when she couldn’t make ends meet working in the Oklahoma public school system
Eagan’s decision to leave was mirrored in May by the 2016 Oklahoma Teacher of the Year, Shawn Sheehan, who wrote in an op-ed: “Teaching in Oklahoma is a dysfunctional relationship.”
Shane Matson is a geologist whose family has been in the Oklahoma oil business for three generations. For Matson, the discovery of new reserves in Oklahoma is a good thing. The “dark outlook about the future of energy” is gone, he says. Cheap oil and gas are now abundant.
Matson fought Obama-era regulations in Osage County, where he was exploring for oil. But his industry’s political influence has now reached untoward extremes, he thinks. Chesapeake Energy, Devon Energy and Continental Resources have lobbied to lower the state’s gross production tax, citing competition from other states. They’ve gotten their way, with Oklahoma’s oil and gas production taxes now significantly below those of its rival Texas.
One of the state’s richest men and its most renowned philanthropist, George Kaiser, has been urging an increase in the gross production tax for years. And there’s reason to believe it’s not necessarily a partisan issue. Until recently, North Dakota had been able to expand its education system with a 6.5% gross production tax.
And despite the tax cuts, the Tulsa-based Newfield Exploration moved most of its staff to Houston.
Currently in a special session, costing tax payers $30,000 each day, the legislature is unable or unwilling to come to terms on balancing the state’s budget. A failed state or failed leaders?