Oklahoma, Kentucky teachers strike for higher pay, education funding

Thousands of teachers in Kentucky and Oklahoma rallied at both state Capitols this week in an effort to get lawmakers to approve additional educational funding.

Hundreds of Oklahoma schools closed Monday when educators headed to Oklahoma City to protest, according to The Oklahoman. Many public schools planned to remain shuttered for the rest of the week as strikes continued Tuesday, The Oklahoman reported.

In Kentucky, all public schools were closed Monday, according to the Courier Journal – some because of a rally in Frankfurt, but most because of spring break.

The average teacher starting salary for the 2016-2017 school year was $38,617, according to the National Education Association. In comparison, the average starting salaries for Kentucky and Oklahoma were $36,494 and $31,919 respectively.

Here’s a look at what teachers are demanding.

What do Kentucky teachers demand?

A teacher holds up a sign during a rally at the Kentucky state Capitol in protest for increased funding and to protest last minute changes to their state funded pension system.

Hundreds of teachers in Kentucky called in sick last week to protest last-minute changes to their pension system. On Monday, thousands descended upon the state Capitol in Frankfurt to rally for additional education funding.

The Republican-controlled Kentucky House and Senate passed a surprise 291-page pension reform bill last week which, among other things, changes the pension plan for new teachers, according to the Courier Journal.

At the state Capitol, demonstrators demanded lawmakers include adequate education funding as they work on the state budget.

“We will be here watching every move legislators make,” Stephanie Winkler, president of the Kentucky Education Association, told the Courier Journal. “If this budget is not in the best interest of public education students and public service, then we will react.”

Erica Sudduth, an elementary school teacher, told The Associated Press that frustration has been mounting for years.

“For years they have been adding more and more and more on to teachers and we have been putting up with all of it,” Sudduth, 29, said. “We have held our tongue this whole time and now it is just coming to a boiling point.”

The Kentucky Education Association Delegate Assembly met Tuesday as teachers come up with their next step, the Lexington Herald-Leader reported.

What about Oklahoma educators?

Teachers picket around the Oklahoma State Capitol in Oklahoma City.

Gov. Mary Fallin, R-Okla., already signed legislation that would up teacher pay by about $6,100 through an increase in taxes on certain goods, such as cigarettes and fuel. But educators and teachers’ unions are arguing it’s not enough.

The Oklahoma Education Association demanded $10,000 in raises for teachers over the next three years, KOKH-TV reported. The union also asked for a $5,000 pay increase for other school officials, such as bus drivers, food service workers and custodians, according to KOKH.

At rallies in front of the state Capitol this week, teachers demanded newer and updated textbooks, more arts classes and smaller class sizes, according to the OEA.

Oklahoma’s new revenue measures are expected to generate about $450 million, with the bulk going to teacher raises and about $50 million going to general education funding. The teachers union has called for an additional classroom funding of $75 million. It has also criticized House and Senate leaders for passing a measure repealing a $5-per-night hotel and motel tax that was part of the original education package. Repeal of the hotel tax reduces the total package by about $45 million.

State funding for Oklahoma’s public schools has decreased by about 9 percent since 2008, The Oklahoman reported. In contrast, student enrollment has increased by more than 8 percent.

But Jonathan Small, president of the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, pointed to a growth in “non-teacher” employment in Oklahoma’s public education that could drain the education budget and teacher salaries.

“Schools, largely driven by the perverse incentive by unions to get more members and memberships, have focused dollars on things other than what’s most important to Oklahomans which is a direct teacher in the classroom,” Small told Fox News.

“We need to see a greater focus on teachers with the current dollars that we have already – now that [the legislature] passed one of the highest tax increases in Oklahoma history,” Small said. “With the actions of the legislature last week, it’s not going to be argued that more additional funds haven’t been pumped into education at a time when Oklahoma is still recovering from a massive economic decline.”

His organization also warned comparing teacher salaries in Oklahoma to Texas can be “misleading” because of a difference in the economic makeup of both states.

Fallin, too, warned that the budget is tight and there are other critical needs in the state as well.

“We must be responsible not to neglect other areas of need in the state, such as corrections and health and human services, as we continue to consider additional education funding measures,” the Republican said.

Rally organizers said its unclear how long the walkout will last.

Are there other strikes, walkouts?

West Virginia teachers went on strike for two weeks earlier this year until Gov. James Justice signed a bill that included a 5 percent pay increase.

Thousands of Arizona teachers also rallied in front of the state Capitol in Phoenix in March. Demonstrators protested perceived low pay and education funding, according to The Arizona Republic.