OKLAHOMA CITY (Reuters) – School teachers in Oklahoma and Kentucky walked off the job on Monday to protest cuts in pay, pensions and benefits, as discontent over years of sluggish spending on public education spilled over in two more U.S. states and threatened to spread.
A walkout by more than 30,000 educators in Oklahoma, whose teachers rank among the lowest-paid in the nation, idled about 500,000 of the state’s 700,000 public school students, union officials said.
About 200 of the state’s 584 school districts were affected, including the 20 largest, according to the Oklahoma Education Association, which represents about 40,000 teachers.
In Kentucky, schools were closed either for spring vacation or to allow educators to protest in the state capital, Frankfort, the state’s teachers union said. The Louisville Courier Journal newspaper reported that 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.
The protests come a month after teachers in West Virginia staged a series of strikes for nearly two weeks before winning a pay raise. Last week teachers in Arizona also rallied for more educational funding.
“We won’t let anyone disinvest in public education. We are here for the long haul,” Alicia Priest, head of the Oklahoma Education Association, told a cheering crowd outside the statehouse. Organizers estimated the turnout at 30,000, including parents, students and other supporters.
In a display reminiscent of some of the biggest protest rallies across the country in recent years, teachers carried signs emblazoned with slogans such as “Our students deserve better” and “Public Edu is an investment in our future.”
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 tax increases.
Thousands of protesting teachers and their supporters, many of them bused in from across the state, filled the Capitol grounds in Oklahoma City and spilled over into the surrounding streets. After the rally, they swarmed hallways of the statehouse to press their demands.
Schools in the state’s two biggest cities, Tulsa and Oklahoma City, will remain closed on Tuesday as the walkout extends into a second day, officials said. The Oklahoman newspaper listed more than two dozen districts that would be closed for at least another day.
“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 posted online, adding that teachers would decide each day how much longer to remain off the job.
Oklahoma legislators last week approved, and Governor Mary Fallin signed into law, the state’s first major tax hike in a quarter century – a $450 million revenue package intended to help fund teacher raises and avert a strike.
But teachers said the package fell short of their demands, including union calls to reverse spending cuts that forced some districts to impose four-day school weeks.
Levata Mickelson, a Spanish teacher from Yukon, just west of Oklahoma City, said she had to work a second full-time job at Walmart to make ends meet. She said she worried that many teachers would end up leaving Oklahoma for states with higher pay.
“When I retire, will there be someone to replace me?” she said as educators picketed the statehouse.
According to National Education Association estimates for 2016, Oklahoma ranked 48th in average U.S. classroom teacher salary. Oklahoma secondary school teachers had an annual mean wage of $42,460 as of May 2016, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The minimum salary for a first-year teacher was $31,600, state data showed.
Oklahoma’s inflation-adjusted general funding per student declined by 28.2 percent between 2008 and 2018, the biggest drop of any state, according to the nonpartisan Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
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.
Additional reporting by Jon Herskovitz in Austin, Texas, and Ian Simpson in Washington; Additional reporting by Bernie Woodall in Fort Lauderdale; Writing by Jon Herskovitz; Editing by Tom Brown and Leslie Adler