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Thousands of educators in Kentucky and Oklahoma took to the streets of their respective state capitals Monday to demand higher pay and more funding for public education.
Many Oklahoma schools, including the three largest districts of Oklahoma City, Tulsa and Edmond, were closed Monday, with districts announcing plans to keep campuses shut into Tuesday to accommodate more planned demonstrations.
Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin signed legislation last week granting teachers pay raises of about $6,100, or 15 to 18 percent — the first such hike in 10 years. But some educators say that isn’t good enough. 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.
GOP Rep. Lewis Moore said it’s unclear what more teachers can accomplish by shutting down schools.
“I don’t know how much more can be gained when we already raised $350 million for teacher raises,” Moore said. “The Department of Corrections needs a billion dollars more. Everybody would agree our roads and bridges aren’t squared away.”
But Rep. Collin Walke, a Democrat, 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.
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.
In Frankfort, Ky., 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.”
Other 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 six 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 from 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.”
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.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.