Thousands of teachers of Oklahoma and Kentucky skipped work to rally at the states’ capitals to demand more funding for education and better conditions for them.
Teachers in these states are deemed as one of the worst paid workers in the country. They were protesting for cuts in pay and benefits. Many teachers say they won’t return to the classrooms until lawmakers pay attention to their demands. Many schools in these states have announced they will remain closed on Tuesday as the strike will continue.
“We have found our mojo. We won’t let anyone disinvest in public education, we are here for the long haul,” said Alicia Priest to 30,000 people crowd that protested outside the statehouse. Priest is the head of the Oklahoma Education Association, which is Oklahoma’s largest teachers union.
‘Stop the war on public education!’
Schools were shut down in Oklahoma because of the strike. In Kentucky, they did it either for spring-break vacations or to permit teachers to protest in Frankfort, Kentucky’s capital. One of the factors that unchained this event can be traced to the ones that took place in West Virginia a month ago, where teachers received a pay raise after a strike that kept schools closed for almost two weeks. Last week, teachers in Arizona rallied to demand more funding too.
In Kentucky, teachers chanted “Stop the war on public education” outside the city Capitol. As well, teachers held signs with messages such as “Our students deserve better” and “Public Edu is an investment in our future.”
Many teachers have got to find a second job
Teachers complain that there have been many years of austerity for education in many states, which has produced stagnation in salaries. In both states – also in West Virginia – the governors are Republicans, and the legislatures are controlled by this party, which is opposed to tax increases.
Last week in Oklahoma, the legislature approved a $450 million revenue package to raise teachers’ pay. Governor Mary Falling signed this measure, but teachers say it is far from being enough.
Teachers say that it is mandatory to restore funding from budget cuts that have obliged some districts to impose four-day school weeks. They say many schools don’t even have enough money to pay electricity and the classrooms are overcrowded. As well, they claim that there are schools that don’t have enough resources to fund books. In some of them, books are from 20 years ago.
Some teachers say that some classrooms have even 40 special education students, and that there are not enough people in the schools to take care of all of them and to make sure they are learning.
Many teachers claim they are not paid enough, and that has driven them to find a second job.
Levata Mickelson is a Spanish teacher from Yukon, which is located about 17 miles west of Oklahoma City. She said that she has a second-full time job a Walmart to pay the bills. She is striking because she wants better conditions for teachers in Oklahoma, so they don’t feel forced to leave to another state where the pay is better
“When I retire, will there be someone to replace me?” said Mrs. Mickelson in front of the statehouse.
Oklahoma ranked 48th in average U.S. classroom teacher salary in 2016, according to the National Education Association. Oklahoma secondary school teachers earned a wage of $42,460 as of May 2016, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Teachers in Oklahoma have not received a state raise in a decade.
The teachers union demanded at least $10,000 raises for teachers; $5,000 raises for support staff; and $200 million in educational funding. However, they just received raises of $6,100, $1,250 raises for support staff, and $50 million in education funding. Priest said that it was a good starting point but definitely not enough. With a $50 million increase, it is not even possible to buy one textbook per student in Oklahoma
“This isn’t just about teacher salaries,” said David DuVall, who is the executive director of the Oklahoma Education Association. “This is about funding our schools for our students.”
In Kentucky, educators were angry because of a bill that passed last week that mandates a hybrid pension plan.
“It’s really hard to go to work every day when you don’t feel your government is behind you,” claimed protesting teacher Shelli Stinson
According to newspapers in Oklahoma, there are more than 20 districts that will remain closed for at least another day of strikes.