DON GONYEA, HOST:
Teachers in West Virginia returned to the classroom this week after a nine-day strike got them a 5 percent pay raise. It's a victory teachers in other states have noted, like Oklahoma. The teachers union there has threatened a statewide strike if teachers don't get a raise by April 1. It's been 10 years since Oklahoma teachers have seen a pay raise. And according to some measures, they are the lowest-paid teachers in the nation. To talk more about this is Joy Hofmeister. She's Oklahoma state superintendent of public instruction. Welcome.
JOY HOFMEISTER: Well, thank you. And it's great to be with you, Don.
GONYEA: So what is your stance if a walkout should happen in Oklahoma?
HOFMEISTER: Well, I think it's very important that teachers have regionally competitive pay - number one. But I do think that we need to be very mindful that we don't further harm students in the process.
GONYEA: Are you advocating a raise?
HOFMEISTER: Oh, 100 percent - and have been from day one.
GONYEA: What is the average pay for an Oklahoma public school teacher?
HOFMEISTER: It's right around $45,000 a year. And I have to say that includes about $7,000 worth of benefits that are added in that. So starting pay for a teacher is only $31,600.
GONYEA: I know contracts are negotiated. But how do we explain 10 years without a raise?
HOFMEISTER: Well, you explain that by another change that happened in 1992. There was a state question that changed the threshold for our state legislature to be able to pass any kind of increase in tax. And that required a 75 percent approval in the House and the Senate before you could raise taxes for raising revenue. And to this point, that hasn't happened.
GONYEA: So is the legislature to blame here, or is it the governor? I know Oklahoma politics are dominated by Republicans. And there has been a push quite apart from this to not only not raise taxes but to cut them even further, affecting the revenue situation.
HOFMEISTER: You know, there are many factors that really contribute to where we are today. But where we are is that we have had to endure 28 percent cuts in our funding formula for education in the last decade. Yet we have grown by around 50,000 additional students. So when you have those kinds of conditions and instability, you have teachers who remain who are weary, who are worn thin and are ready to walk to the Capitol.
GONYEA: And it's not just teachers, right? Many districts - maybe you can tell me how many - have cut back to a four-day school week.
HOFMEISTER: That's exactly right. So we have 91 school districts out of 512 on a four-day school week. And it started as a answer to budget shortfalls and changes mid-year in the funding that was given to schools. But what happened was districts found that, you know, where they had had no applicants for teaching positions, even in elementary schools, they suddenly had more applicants. And they were coming from neighboring school districts. So as teachers are forced to work two or three jobs, the idea of a four-day school week became an attractive option for remaining in Oklahoma as a teacher.
GONYEA: And does the legislature have any options, anything it can do to avoid or prevent - I guess is the word - a strike?
HOFMEISTER: Certainly. Every day, there is an opportunity to set aside differences, to put forward something that could earn and garner that 75 percent. We are certainly going to be seeing the effect of, I think, outrage by the public if this does not get solved. But there's great support in the state. I think that there is mixed feelings about, how do we advocate to accomplish this with legislators? And many teachers have their heart in the classroom. And they don't want to leave. Others are fed up and feel they have no other option but to show up themselves at the Capitol.
GONYEA: Joy Hofmeister is Oklahoma state superintendent of public instruction. Thanks for talking to us this morning.
HOFMEISTER: Thank you, Don.
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