Thousands of public school teachers are rallying outside state capitols in Oklahoma and Kentucky Monday, shutting down schools to protest low teacher pay and benefit cuts.
An estimated 30,000 teachers and educators gathered at the capitol in Oklahoma City, prompting nearly half of the state’s 500-plus school districts to shut down (the schools that closed serve about 75 percent of the state’s students). Teachers in the state are demanding $3.3 billion over the next three years for school funding, benefits, and pay raises for all public employees. Many state employees have joined the strike too.
Meanwhile, every single one of Kentucky’s public schools closed on Monday. The majority are on spring break this week, but the 20 districts that are not shut down anyway. Teachers in the state are furious about a surprise bill lawmakers passed last week that cuts pension benefits for new and retiring teachers. Hundreds of teachers walked out of class Friday in response, and about 5,000 rallied in the capital of Frankfurt Monday.
The teachers strike in Kentucky was organized within a matter of days. But in Oklahoma, educators have been planning their walkout for at least a month, giving lawmakers time to pass a bill to meet their demands. Last week, Oklahoma legislators passed a $447 million compromise to boost teacher pay and school funding by raising taxes on oil production, diesel fuel, and cigarettes. But that was only a fraction of the $3.3 billion requested by the teachers, and the Oklahoma Education Association — the professional educators’ group that is leading negotiations — rejected the deal.
Oklahoma’s teachers are rebelling against years of deep cuts to education that have left 20 percent of public schools on a four-day-week schedule and average teacher salaries that rank 49th in the country.
“You are part of a movement that cannot be stopped,” Lily Eskelsen García, president of the National Education Association, said to teachers gathered outside the capitol in Oklahoma City.
The battles playing out in Oklahoma and Kentucky are the latest chapters in a brewing fight over teacher pay and benefits, particularly in Republican-controlled states that have gutted school spending in recent years to offset deep tax cuts for businesses and income tax cuts that overwhelmingly benefited wealthy earners. Teachers in Arizona are gearing up for their own strike, and rallied last week in Phoenix for a 20 percent raise. The successful nine-day teachers strike in West Virginia has given educators in these states hope that they can force lawmakers to listen to them too.
Oklahoma teachers haven’t gotten a raise in ten years
Oklahoma finds itself in a budget bind after lawmakers slashed business taxes and top income tax rates year after year. A round went into effect in 2009; then taxes were lowered further in 2012 and 2014. The tax cuts were supposed to lead to an economic boom. Instead, they triggered a massive budget gap of about $1.5 billion each year.
To deal with the shortfall, the government cut spending everywhere. The cuts to education were so deep that 20 percent of the state's public schools had to switch to a four-day school week. Oklahoma teachers made an average salary of $45,276 in 2016, according to the National Education Association; the state is ranked 49th in average teacher salaries. The last time teachers got a raise from the state was in 2008.
The state is also struggling to find, and keep, qualified teachers. About a quarter of Oklahoma City’s teachers leave every year, and the state had to issue a record number of emergency teaching certificates: 1,917 for the current school year.
Now Oklahoma faces an estimated $425 million budget hole for the next fiscal year. Teachers were disappointed last month when lawmakers failed to get enough votes for a bill called Step Up Oklahoma, which would have raised more than $700 million by taxing cigarettes, diesel fuel, and wind energy, and by raising oil production taxes from 2 percent to 4 percent. Some of that money would have been used to give teachers a 1 percent pay bump.
The bill never passed because lawmakers couldn’t get enough votes to raise taxes. Instead, they passed a very different bill, one that would cut more funding from nearly every state agency, including $16.2 million from the Department of Education. The state’s Republican governor, Mary Fallin, signed the bill in late February.
A week later, as the teachers strike was unfolding in West Virginia, Oklahoma lawmakers reversed course and passed another bill that would use $19.9 million in lottery revenue to offset the education cuts. But there was still no pay raise in sight, and no new funding to make up for the $200 million in school spending cut from the budget in the past 10 years.
That was the last straw for teachers and school administrators. They decided it was time to talk about a strike.
The threat of a strike is already working
Emboldened by the success of the teachers strike in West Virginia, Oklahoma educators presented a list of demands to state lawmakers in February. They gave legislators about a month to pass a bill.
The group asked for a $10,000 average pay raise for teachers over three years — $6,000 in the first year, then $2,000 for each of the following two years. (In 2016, a $6,000 average raise would have been enough to push Oklahoma from the 49th to 28th in teacher pay, right above Montana and Virginia.)
Oklahoma’s teachers are also asking for a $7,000 raise for school support staff over three years, raises for all state employees, $200 million in school funding, a 5 percent cost of living pension adjustment for retired teachers, and more funding for their health care plans.
The teachers’ demands add up to about $3.3 billion over three years. That’s money Oklahoma doesn’t have on hand.
Many politicians in Oklahoma City scoffed at the teachers’ list of demands, but they felt the pressure to do something. In recent weeks, lawmakers have proposed a handful of bills: One would have raised teacher pay by about $5,000, but it didn’t include more funding for schools or anything else (that bill passed, but not the bill to raise cigarette and oil taxes to pay for it). Another plan called for a $2,000 raise for teachers next year and a $4,000 raise the following year, but it didn’t include anything else, not even a source of funding to pay for the raises. The Oklahoma Education Association opposed both measures.
The latest bill, which the governor signed into law last week, is the most generous yet, but the $447 million it would bring is still far too little. Teachers have rejected that proposal too.
But even the latest funding bill represents a remarkable shift, considering that schools were facing millions of dollars in budget cuts and no raises for teachers next year.
“While this is major progress, this investment alone will not undo a decade of neglect. Lawmakers have left funding on the table that could be used immediately to help Oklahoma students,” Alicia Priest, president of the Oklahoma Education Association, said in a statement last week. “There is still work to do to get this legislature to invest more in our classrooms. That work will continue Monday when educators descend on the Capitol.”