TULSA, Okla./OKLAHOMA CITY (Reuters) – Oklahoma teachers walked out for a second day on Tuesday, closing schools in the state’s two biggest cities, as they demanded higher state spending on public education in the latest U.S. labor action by educators.
Thousands of educators crowded into the state capital, Oklahoma City, chanting “don’t back down” and “we’ll be back,” video footage posted online by local media showed, while other groups staged smaller satellite protests around the state.
The walkout reflected rising discontent amid years of sluggish or declining public school spending in Oklahoma, which ranked 47th among the 50 U.S. states in per-student expenditure, and 48th in average teacher salaries in 2016, according to the National Education Association.
The protest follows a successful two-week job action by West Virginia teachers that led lawmakers last month to vote to raise their pay, and comes as teachers in Kentucky and Arizona plan other labor actions to demonstrate against years of stagnant or reduced budgets by Republican-controlled legislatures.
Frederick Smitherman, who teaches eighth grade at Will Rogers Early Junior High School in the city of Tulsa, joined a crowd of teacher, parent and student protesters who had gathered in a satellite protest on Tuesday.
“We all pay taxes and expect our legislators to do what we voted them in to do,” Smitherman said. “What else are teachers supposed to do besides yell and scream? We can vote them out, but voting one out just brings a bad one in instead. My hope is that this doesn’t fall on deaf ears.”
Monday’s walkout by more than 30,000 educators in Oklahoma forced the cancellation of classes for some 500,000 of the state’s 700,000 public school students, according to union officials. The Oklahoman newspaper listed about 70 schools or districts that were shuttered Tuesday as well.
Oklahoma’s first major tax hike in a quarter century was approved by legislators last week, and signed into law by Governor Mary Fallin – a $450 million revenue package intended to help fund teacher raises and avert a strike.
Teachers said that package fell short and demanded that lawmakers go further by reversing spending cuts that have forced some districts to impose four-day school weeks.
“When our members believe the legislature has committed to funding our children’s future, they will return to the classroom,” the Oklahoma Education Association, the state’s biggest teachers union, said in a statement posted online.
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.
The Oklahoma strikes on Monday coincided with a second day of walkouts by several thousand teachers in Kentucky after legislators there passed a bill imposing new limits on the state’s underfunded public employee pension system.
Kentucky educators largely returned to their classrooms or scheduled spring break holidays on Tuesday.
Stephanie Winkler, president of the Kentucky Education Association union, said lawmakers appeared to be listening to teachers as they negotiated budget bills, according to an interview with the Lexington Herald Leader.
Additional reporting by Jon Herskovitz in Austin, Texas and Jonathan Allen in New York; Editing by Susan Thomas and Bernadette Baum