FRANKFORT, Ky. – 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.
Many Oklahoma schools were closed Monday, and districts announced plans to stay shut 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 – who haven’t seen a pay increase in 10 years – say that isn’t good enough and walked out.
The state’s largest teachers union 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.
“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.
Fallin on Monday praised the Oklahoma’s GOP-led Legislature’s achievement in approving part of what teacher’s want.
“Significant revenue-raising measures were approved to make this pay raise and additional school funding possible,” the Republican said in a statement. “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.
But Democratic lawmaker Collin Walke said teachers should keep up the pressure. Two separate bills pending in the Legislature to expand tribal gambling and eliminate the income tax deduction for capital gains could generate more than $100 million in additional funding each year.
“I think the Republican strategy is to wait the teachers out,” Walke said.
Oklahoma ranks 47th among states and the District of Columbia in public school revenue per student 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.
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. Many Arizona teachers wore red clothes to school Monday in solidarity with protests in Oklahoma and Kentucky, said Joe Thomas, president of the Arizona Education Association.
National Education Association President Lily Eskelsen Garcia spoke to thousands during the rally in Oklahoma, saying lawmakers need to do more.
“We are through correcting their mistakes.”
In Frankfort, Kentucky, teachers and other school employees chanted “Stop the war on public education.”
“We’re madder than hornets, and the hornets are swarming today,” said Claudette Green, a retired teacher and principal.
Schools across Kentucky 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.”