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Oklahoma teachers take demands to state capitol in second day of walkout

TULSA, Okla./OKLAHOMA CITY (Reuters) - Sign-carrying Oklahoma teachers walked off the job for a second day on Tuesday, staging boisterous rallies in front of lawmakers and closing hundreds of public schools across the state as they demanded higher pay and more money for education in the latest U.S. labor action by educators.

Hundreds of teachers crowded into the state capitol rotunda in Oklahoma City, chanting “fund our schools” and “we’re not leaving” as they lobbied lawmakers to pass a tax package that would raise another $200 million for schools.

Teachers, parents and students staged sympathy rallies around the state and some 70 public school districts were forced to suspend classes on Tuesday.

Teachers’ union officials estimated 30,000 educators were off the job in Oklahoma on Tuesday and that classes were canceled for some 500,000 of the state’s 700,000 public school students - similar to the numbers in Monday’s walkout.

The protests reflected rising discontent after 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 walkouts follow a two-week job action in West Virginia that prompted lawmakers to raise teachers’ pay. Educators in Kentucky also staged demonstrations against years of stagnant or reduced budgets by a Republican-controlled legislature. Most returned to their classrooms or scheduled spring break holidays on Tuesday. Teachers in Arizona have threatened similar job actions.

In Tulsa, Frederick Smitherman, 48, who teaches eighth grade at Will Rogers Early College Junior High School, joined teachers, parents and students in a satellite protest on Tuesday.

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“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.”

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 raise teachers’ salaries by about $6,100 a year and avert a strike.

Teachers said that package wasn’t good enough and demanded lawmakers reverse spending cuts that have forced some districts to impose four-day school weeks. The $200 million package they were lobbying for on Tuesday would increase hotel and capital gains taxes.

“Lawmakers have left significant funding on the table – funding that has bipartisan support but is being held up for political reasons,” the Oklahoma Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, said in a statement.

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.

American high school teachers are paid about two-thirds of what other professionals with college degrees earn, ahead of only the Slovak Republic and Czech Republic among 28 developed nations, according to a 2017 report by the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), which groups 35 industrialized countries.

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.

Poppy Kelley, 47, a French teacher at Thomas Edison Preparatory High School in Tulsa with 23 years of teaching experience, said boosts in spending were needed for school facilities, books and supplies as well as teacher salaries.

“Oklahoma kids for a decade are so used to not having enough or having to make do that they don’t know what ‘enough’ looks like,” Kelley said. “They want textbooks. They want chairs. They want tables that don’t have a bent leg. They want proper technology in the classrooms.”

Additional reporting by Jon Herskovitz in Austin, Texas, Jonathan Allen in New York and Ian Simpson in Washington, D.C.; Writing by Scott Malone and Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Bernadette Baum and Bill Trott