SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:
We're going to start the program today in Oklahoma, where teachers are planning a statewide walkout tomorrow. They are demanding increased annual funding for schools and a pay raise for teachers. On Thursday, Oklahoma State lawmakers tried to prevent the strike by passing a bill that would give teachers a $6,100 raise, but educators say that doesn't go far enough. We wanted to hear from one of those state legislators, so we've called up Republican State Senator Joseph Silk. He voted against the bill, and he joins me now from southeast Oklahoma. Hello there.
JOSEPH SILK: Hey, Sarah. How are you doing?
MCCAMMON: Why did you vote against the bill? Let's start there.
SILK: OK. Well, I voted against the bill because it was just a huge massive tax increase that didn't have any reforms, whether they be education reforms or financial reforms. So it didn't really help solve any of the state budget issues. It was, again, just a big, massive tax increase.
MCCAMMON: So you objected to the fact that the salary increases for teachers would be paid for, at least in part, with taxes on things like cigarettes and oil and gas production. Do you think there's another way to pay for what the teachers across Oklahoma are asking for?
SILK: Yeah, there absolutely is. Our state agencies are really having a lot of trouble actually spending their taxpayer dollars properly. And so we see a lot of waste and abuse. And then also, we're kind of out of control on our tax credits. So I really do believe that we could have paid for the teacher pay raise, which is needed, through other means by not raising taxes at all.
MCCAMMON: But that was the bill you were given. Oklahoma ranks 42nd in the country for pre-K to 12th grade education. You currently have a teacher shortage. The pay for teachers in your state is one of the lowest in the country. The starting wage is about $31,000. Is that a livable wage in Oklahoma?
SILK: It depends on which part of Oklahoma. You know, in my part of the state, it is because we have a very low cost of living. And other parts of the state and the urban areas, no, that would be pretty low. So I've always advocated for a teacher pay raise. But when you factor in kind of their benefits and then the cost of living, it's definitely a livable wage for sure.
MCCAMMON: On Facebook, you wrote a post explaining your decision not to vote for this bill to raise teacher pay because of your opposition to some of the tax hikes we've talked about. And I understand you think there's too much taxation, that state government needs reform. You had some very strong words in that post for the teachers who've been striking. You say, quote, "they've radically and vocally turned against all common sense." If state government is inefficient, as you say, why should teachers bear the consequences of that?
SILK: Well, I mean, it's not just teachers that bear the consequences, it's everybody. It's our highway patrolman. It's our everyday citizens. And yeah, the teachers are right there with us. So I really wish that the Oklahoma Education Association and stuff like that - I really wish they would have gotten behind some more common sense fiscally responsible measures instead of just saying, hey, raise taxes on everybody so we can have basically a higher paycheck.
MCCAMMON: Teachers are preparing in Oklahoma to stage a statewide walkout tomorrow. Where do you see this going?
SILK: Well, I don't know. I mean, I have received mixed contacts from my teachers. There are some that are saying thank you for the pay raise, and then there are some that are saying it's not enough. So there's definitely not a lot of unity among the educators now that the bill has passed. And so I don't know. It'll be very interesting to see.
MCCAMMON: Will state lawmakers be able to get together and figure something out?
SILK: Just from my perspective, you know, we just passed a $447 million tax increase, so that's a substantial amount of revenue for one year. So I don't see the lawmakers doing anything anything else this year regarding education funding.
MCCAMMON: That's Oklahoma State Senator Joseph Silk. Senator Silk, thank you.
SILK: Thank you, Sarah. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.