Kentucky and Oklahoma teachers flood state capitals -- and refuse to back down
Posted April 2, 2018 2:27 a.m. EDT
Updated April 2, 2018 2:32 p.m. EDT
OKLAHOMA CITY, Oklahoma (CNN) — Tens of thousands of Oklahoma and Kentucky teachers ditched classrooms Monday to rally at their state capitals, demanding more education funding for students.
And many say they'll keep fighting until lawmakers meet their demands.
"Stop the war on public education!" Kentucky teachers chanted in front of the capitol in Frankfort.
Galvanized by West Virginia teachers, who went on strike and got a pay raise, educators in Oklahoma, Kentucky and Arizona are also demanding better conditions for students and themselves.
Kentucky teachers are decrying what they call "bait-and-switch" changes to their pensions, after state lawmakers tucked those reforms into another bill about sewage and passed that bill last week.
And in Oklahoma, protesters are rallying for higher teacher and support staff raises, as well as increased funding for education -- which has plummeted by 28% over the past decade, the state teachers' union said.
And there's no end to the walkout in sight. Oklahoma City Public Schools -- the largest school district in the state -- has already canceled classes for Tuesday.
Oklahoma: Where classrooms don't have enough textbooks
Teachers statewide flocked to Oklahoma City, saying concessions made by lawmakers last week aren't nearly good enough to support the future of education.
Oklahoma is among the bottom three states in teachers' salaries, and until Thursday, had not received a state raise in a decade. The state teachers' union has been demanding $10,000 raises for teachers; $5,000 raises for support staff; and $200 million in educational funding.
"This isn't just about teacher salaries," said David DuVall, executive director of the Oklahoma Education Association. "This is about funding our schools for our students."
Jennifer Thornton, a third-grade teacher from Tulsa, said the lack of funding has led to outrageous class sizes.
"The worst I've seen is 40 special ed students in one classroom," Thornton said. "We don't have enough adults in the building to keep the number of students we have safe or still learning."
Last week, Gov. Mary Fallin signed a bill that raises teachers' salaries by an average of $6,100. It also gives $1,250 raises for support staff and adds $50 million in education funding.
OEA president Alicia Priest called it a "good starting point," but not enough. She said some classrooms don't have enough textbooks, and that some books are more than 20 years old -- affecting the quality of education for students.
Priest said the $50 million increase approved by the state last week "will buy less than one textbook per student in Oklahoma."
"We've been cut over 28% in the last 10 years in education funding, and our schools just can't maintain all of the supplies, instructional materials, textbooks, even copy paper," she said. "Copies are limited in schools to maybe 30 a week."
Kentucky: Where teachers feel 'an outright assault on public education'
Frigid conditions didn't deter teachers from protesters at the state Capitol on Monday, the last weekday of the Kentucky legislative session.
"At this point, we are continuing to protest until our voices are heard," said Gerry Brooks, principal at Liberty Elementary in Lexington. "This is been going on an awful long time, and we're not really being heard."
Kentucky Education Association President Stephanie Winkler said the lawmakers' sudden reform to teachers' pensions was like a "bomb that exploded on public service."
According to the plan:
There will be no changes to annual cost of living adjustments, which will remain at 1.5%. New hires will have to enter a hybrid cash balance plan, in which members contribute a specified amount into their account. Teachers will have a limited number of sick days they can put toward their retirement.
The bill, passed mostly on party lines, has gone to Gov. Matt Bevin -- who supports reforming the pension system. State leaders say it's critical to fix the pension crisis, which has as one of the worst shortfalls in the US.
Furious over the changes, educators called out of work sick or requested substitutes, forcing schools to close in more than 20 counties Friday.
By Monday, at least 25 Kentucky school districts closed due to the walkout at the state Capitol. Those teachers were joined by many more colleagues from across the state who were on spring break.
In addition to the outcry over the pension bill, teachers are also demanding more funding for schools to help pay for textbooks, technology and school programs.
First-year teacher Diane Young said she's already used to spending her own money on classroom supplies.
"It's just an outright assault on public education. Communities, states need public education," she said.
"And instead of finding logical sources for funding, they just want to cut and take away. And it's awful, because our kids deserve better. Our state deserves better."