Teachers in Oklahoma and Kentucky strike over pay increases and school budgets

Mythili Sampathkumar
The crowd cheers during a teacher rally at the state Capitol in Oklahoma City on 2 April 2018. Teachers were holding separate protests in Oklahoma and Kentucky on Monday to voice dissatisfaction with issues like pay and pensions: AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki
The crowd cheers during a teacher rally at the state Capitol in Oklahoma City on 2 April 2018. Teachers were holding separate protests in Oklahoma and Kentucky on Monday to voice dissatisfaction with issues like pay and pensions: AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki

More than 300,000 school teachers in Oklahoma and Kentucky are striking to protest cuts in pay, pensions, benefits, and spending cuts to classroom spending.

In Oklahoma, school teachers are among the lowest paid in the US and the state's largest teachers union has demanded a $10,000 pay raise for educators over three years, $5,000 for support personnel and a $75 million increase in funding this year. About 200 of the nearly 600 school districts in Oklahoma were affected by the striking educators.

In Kentucky, schools were closed either for spring holidays or to allow educators to protest in the state capital, Frankfort, the state's teachers union said. Schools were closed in all 120 of Kentucky's counties, 21 as a direct result of a protest rally that drew thousands of teachers to the capital, according to the Louisville Journal Courier newspaper.

The protests come on the heels of public school teachers in West Virginia staging a similar strike. They reached two weeks before government officials approved a five per cent pay raise. Teachers in Arizona are also considering a walkout after demanding a 20 per cent pay increase.

Alicia Priest, head of the Oklahoma Education Association, said to a large crowd of at least 30,000 people gathered outside of the state capital building: "We won't let anyone disinvest in public education. We are here for the long haul”.

Teachers and parents carried signs that had slogans like “Our students deserve better” or “50 Reasons to fund public education”. Oklahoma secondary school teachers had an annual mean wage of $42,460 as of May 2016, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. The minimum salary for a first-year teacher was $31,600, state data showed.

Educators say years of austerity in many states have led to wage stagnation and the hollowing-out of school systems. West Virginia, Kentucky and Oklahoma all have Republican governors and Republican-controlled legislatures that have resisted property or sales tax increases from which public schools are usually funded.

However, Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin signed into law last week a $450 million revenue package intended to help fund teacher raises and avert a strike. Teachers’ unions have said the package fell short of their demands, including calls to reverse spending cuts that forced some districts to impose four-day school weeks to save on operating costs.

"When our members believe the legislature has committed to funding our children's future, they will return to the classroom," the union said in a statement as the strike will stretch into a second day.

State Representative Democratic Collin Walke said Oklahoma teachers should keep up the pressure. Two separate bills pending in the state legislature to expand Native American tribal gambling and eliminate the income tax deduction for capital gains could generate more than $100m in additional funding each year.

"I think the Republican strategy is to wait the teachers out," Mr Walke said.

Many teachers in both states interviewed on network television stations mentioned they had to have second jobs in order to avoid being on the dole, but that they remained committed to doing what they felt was best for students.

In Kentucky, teachers were angered by the surprise passage of a bill last week that mandates a hybrid pension plan with individual retirement accounts for new hires.

"It's really hard to go to work every day when you don't feel your government is behind you," protesting teacher Shelli Stinson told Louisville television station WLKY.

Republican lawmakers in Kentucky passed a pension overhaul Thursday that preserves benefits for most workers but cuts them for new teachers. The move was done in response to chronic underfunding of the state's teacher retirement system and in defiance of a powerful teachers union that vowed political retribution. Opponents objected that the pension changes were inserted into an unrelated bill without a chance for public input, and worry that the changes will discourage young people from joining the profession.

"Stop the war on public education,” chanted several protesters outside of the statehouse in Frankfort. Budget negotiators unveiled a spending plan Monday that includes increased spending for the main funding formula for K-12 schools and restored money for school buses that the state's Republican governor had proposed eliminating. After continued protesting over the pension plan change, spending and taxing proposals were expected to be voted upon in the Kentucky House late on Monday.