Kentucky, Oklahoma teachers rally as rebellion grows
Oklahoma City – The state Capitol in Kentucky filled with teachers protesting pension changes and demanding generous school funding Monday, and thousands of Oklahoma educators walked out of classrooms in the latest evidence of teacher rebellion in some Republican-led states over education cuts.
Many Oklahoma schools, including the three largest districts of Oklahoma City, Tulsa and Edmond, were closed Monday. Districts announced plans to keep campuses shut down into Tuesday with teacher demonstrations expected to last a second day.
Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin signed legislation last week granting teachers pay raises of about $6,100, or 15 to 18 percent. But some educators say that isn’t good enough and walked out.
“If I didn’t have a second job, I’d be on food stamps,” said Rae Lovelace, a single mom and a third-grade teacher at Leedey Public Schools in northwest Oklahoma who works 30 to 40 hours a week at a second job teaching online courses for a charter school.
The largest teachers union in Oklahoma 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. The pay hike lawmakers approved last week was the first Oklahoma teachers have seen in 10 years.
The demonstrations were inspired by West Virginia, where teachers walked out for nine days earlier this year and won a 5 percent increase in pay. Teachers in Arizona are now considering a strike over their demands for a 20 percent salary increase.
“Their success has shown us that collective activity can work,” Kentucky teacher Corey Sayre said of the West Virginia walkout.
Some schools in Oklahoma are offering free meals to students aged 18 or younger while various churches, faith organizations and charitable agencies are providing free day-care services. Spring break was last week in many Oklahoma districts.
Oklahoma ranks 47th among states and the District of Columbia in public school revenue per student, nearly $3,000 below the national average, while its average teacher salary of $45,276 ranked 49th before the latest raises, according to the most recent statistics from the National Education Association.
Alicia Priest, president of the Oklahoma Education Association, said during the rally that drew thousands to the state Capitol that teachers will continue pressing their demands for lawmakers to approve more funding for pay raises and classrooms.
In Frankfort, Kentucky, teachers and other school employees gathered outside the Kentucky Education Association a couple of blocks from the Capitol, chanting “Stop the war on public education” and held signs that say “We’ve Had Enough.”
“We’re madder than hornets, and the hornets are swarming today,” said Claudette Green, a retired teacher and principal.
Kentucky teachers chanting “We won’t back down” crammed into the Capitol, filling the Rotunda and hallways near the House and Senate chambers. Schools across the state were closed, due either to spring break or to allow teachers and other school employees to attend the rally.
Amid a chorus of chants from teachers rallying in the Capitol, Kentucky lawmakers considered a new state budget that includes higher spending for public education.
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.
The additional education spending would be paid for by a 6 percent sales tax on a host of services that had previously been tax-free. The spending and taxing proposals cleared the Senate on Monday and went to the House, which was expected to vote on the measures later Monday.
Language arts teacher Lesley Buckner was reluctant to give lawmakers much credit.
“We’re sending a message,” she said. “If we continue to stay united, they cannot turn away from us, they cannot turn their backs on us.”
The rally happened after hundreds of teachers called in sick Friday to protest last-minute changes to their pension system. Teachers have rallied several times during Kentucky’s legislative session to protest the pension bill, but Monday was by far their biggest event.
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.
Republican Gov. Matt Bevin has not yet signed the bill, but last week tweeted his support, saying public workers owe “a deep debt of gratitude” to lawmakers who voted to pass it.
During Monday’s rally, some teachers, angry at lawmakers who supported the bill, chanted “Vote them out.”
Melissa Wash, a first-grade teacher form Gallatin County who has been teaching for 19 years, said she voted for Bevin, but now plans to become a Democrat. To the lawmakers who voted for the pension overhaul, she said: “You better not count on another year in office.”
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