OKLAHOMA CITY, Okla.—Thousands of teachers in Oklahoma and Kentucky walked off the job this week, holding massive protests in their state capitals to demand better treatment from state governments.
Schools shut down across the state in Oklahoma, as an estimated 30,000 teachers and supporters rallied outside the state capitol to demand more school funding. In Kentucky, thousands of people marched on the capitol building in Lexington to protest a bill the state legislature jammed through last week that would drastically cut pensions for future teachers.
“We told them we would come, and here we are, and we’ll be back tomorrow and for as many days as it takes in support of our students and their educations,” Oklahoma Education Association President Alicia Priest told the crowd in Oklahoma City. Other speakers included National Education Association leader Lily Eskelsen Garcia, American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, and the head of Oklahoma’s Professional Employees Association.
While Oklahoma teachers’ salaries are among the lowest in the nation, Priest told LaborPress that “this is not about a teacher raise. This is about putting funding into the classroom for the students.”
Oklahoma has cut per-pupil spending by 28% over the last 10 years, according to the OEA. The results, Priest said, are that many schools have eliminated classes in the arts, foreign languages, agriculture, and physical education, and 91 of the state’s roughly 500 school districts are operating on a four-day week. Adequate funding, she said, would also enable schools to hire counselors, librarians, and paraprofessionals, and give students textbooks that aren’t “20 years old and falling apart.”
A deaf high-school student who spoke at the rally, she added, had to take geometry online because with 38 students in her math class and no certified teacher, there was no one to help her understand what was going on. With teachers’ salaries as much as $19,000 a year higher in neighboring states, an OEA spokesperson said, Oklahoma has had so much trouble retaining them that it’s hired more than 2,000 “emergency certificate” teachers—college graduates who haven’t taken the usual classes in education or done student teaching.
Gov. Mary Fallin signed a bill last week, House Bill 1010XX, that would increase teachers’ salaries by about $6,100 a year, the first raise they’ve had in a decade, to be paid for by higher taxes on cigarettes and oil and gas production. But “there’s a hole in the funding,” Priest says. The legislature earmarked the second year of revenues from those taxes for roads and bridges, she says. It also passed and quickly rescinded $45 million in hotel and motel taxes—an amount she says wouldn’t “even purchase one textbook per child.”
But the walkout “is not a strike,” Priest says. “It’s a school closure, like a bad-weather day.” Some districts, she explains, will reopen schools Apr. 3, but others, including Oklahoma City, will let teachers stay out to keep pressure on the legislature. The state Senate has passed a bill that would raise Oklahoma’s capital-gains tax to fund education, and the House is considering it.
Meanwhile in Kentucky, the state legislature enraged educators by slipping provisions that would gut pensions for future teachers into a bill ostensibly about sewage treatment. Senate Bill 151, passed on a largely party-line vote by both houses within nine hours on Mar. 29, would put teachers hired after Jan. 1 into a “hybrid cash-balance retirement plan” instead of a defined-benefit pension. It would effectively require those teachers to work until they’re 65 to get a full pension, and unlike with “inviolable contract” pensions, the legislature could reduce benefits at any time.
Kentucky Education Association President Stephanie Winkler, a fourth-grade teacher from Madison County, called the bill “a bomb that has exploded on public service” passed by a process that “showed blatant disrespect for the law and for democracy.” “No one, except key leadership in both chambers, was privy to the nearly 300-page bill that was secretly switched from a waste-water bill to a pension-reform bill,” she said in a statement. “There was ample and repeated opportunity to discuss the specifics of this bill with KEA leadership and individual member stakeholders. That was never done.”
Gov. Matt Bevin, who has not yet signed the bill, praised it on Twitter, saying public workers owed the legislature “a deep debt of gratitude” for dealing with the state pension system’s financial problems.
Teachers began calling in sick en masse the next day, closing schools in more than 20 counties. On Apr. 2, schools in at least 25 counties were closed, with all of the others off for spring break, as thousands of protesters converged on Lexington.
“People are furious,” retired teacher Lydia Coffey of Liberty told the Louisville Courier Journal. “It’s childish. We’ve never been disrespected like this.”
“Instead of finding logical sources for funding, they just want to cut and take away,” first-year teacher Diane Young told CNN. “And it’s awful, because our kids deserve better. Our state deserves better.”