Oklahoma, Kentucky teachers skip school as frustration boils over

OKLAHOMA CITY (Reuters) - School teachers in Oklahoma and Kentucky walked off the job on Monday to protest cuts in pay, pensions and benefits, as discontent over years of sluggish spending on public education spilled over in two more U.S. states and threatened to spread.

A walkout by more than 30,000 educators in Oklahoma, whose teachers rank among the lowest-paid in the nation, idled about 500,000 of the state's 700,000 public school students, union officials said.

About 200 of the state's 584 school districts were affected, including the 20 largest, according to the Oklahoma Education Association, which represents about 40,000 teachers.

In Kentucky, schools were closed either for spring vacation or to allow educators to protest in the state capital, Frankfort, the state's teachers union said. The Louisville Courier Journal newspaper reported that schools were closed in all 120 of Kentucky's counties, 21 as a direct result of a protest rally that drew thousands of teachers to the capital.

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Oklahoma, Kentucky teachers walk out over pay
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Oklahoma, Kentucky teachers walk out over pay
FRANKFORT, KY - APRIL 2: Thousands of public school teachers and their supporters protest against a pension reform bill at the Kentucky State Capitol April 2, 2018 in Frankfort, Kentucky. The teachers are calling for higher wages and are demanding that Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin veto a bill that overhauls their pension plan. (Photo by Bill Pugliano/Getty Images)
OKLAHOMA CITY, OK - APRIL 2: Elvin Lee, a teacher from Lawton, Oklahoma joints the teachers' rally at the state capitol on April 2, 2018 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. Last week, Gov. Mary Fallin said teachers should come to the capitol to thank her for the raise. Thousands of teachers and supporters are scheduled to rally Monday at the state Capitol calling for higher wages and increased school funding. Teachers are walking off the job after a $6,100 pay raise was rushed through the Legislature and signed into law by Gov. Mary Fallin. (Photo by J Pat Carter/Getty Images)
Oklahoma teachers rally outside the state Capitol in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, U.S., April 2, 2018. REUTERS/Lenzy Krehbiel-Burton
Thousands of Kentucky school teachers marched Monday, April 2, 2018 from the Kentucky Education Association's headquarters to the State Capitol in Frankfort, Ky. to protest legislative changes to their pensions and education cuts. Public schools in all 120 Kentucky counties were closed Monday, either to join in the protest or because of spring break. (Charles Bertram/Lexington Herald-Leader/TNS via Getty Images)
Oklahoma teachers rally outside the state Capitol in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, U.S., April 2, 2018. REUTERS/Lenzy Krehbiel-Burton
Oklahoma teachers rally outside the state Capitol in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, U.S., April 2, 2018. REUTERS/Lenzy Krehbiel-Burton
FRANKFORT, KY - APRIL 2: Public school teachers and their supporters protest against a pension reform bill at the Kentucky State Capitol April 2, 2018 in Frankfort, Kentucky. The teachers are calling for higher wages and are demanding that Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin veto a bill that overhauls their pension plan. (Photo by Bill Pugliano/Getty Images)
Oklahoma teachers rally outside the state Capitol in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, U.S., April 2, 2018. REUTERS/Lenzy Krehbiel-Burton
Oklahoma teachers rally outside the state Capitol in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, U.S., April 2, 2018. REUTERS/Lenzy Krehbiel-Burton
FRANKFORT, KY - APRIL 2: Public school teachers and their supporters protest against a pension reform bill outside the senate chambers at the Kentucky State Capitol April 2, 2018 in Frankfort, Kentucky. The teachers are calling for higher wages and are demanding that Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin veto a bill that overhauls their pension plan. (Photo by Bill Pugliano/Getty Images)
OKLAHOMA CITY, OK - APRIL 2: Natalie Armstrong (left) and her two daughters Payton and Payzlyn, along with her mother Katrina Sinor rally at the state capitol on April 2, 2018 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. Thousands of teachers and supporters are scheduled to rally Monday at the state Capitol calling for higher wages and better school funding. Armstrong said she has spent $3,000 this year for school supplies Teachers are walking off the job after a $6,100 pay raise was rushed through the Legislature and signed into law by Gov. Mary Fallin. (Photo by J Pat Carter/Getty Images)
OKLAHOMA CITY, OK - APRIL 2: Oklahoma teachers rally at the state capitol on April 2, 2018 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. Thousands of teachers and supporters are scheduled to rally Monday at the state Capitol calling for higher wages and better school funding. Teachers are walking off the job after a $6,100 pay raise was rushed through the Legislature and signed into law by Gov. Mary Fallin. (Photo by J Pat Carter/Getty Images)
Thousands of Kentucky teachers rallied at the state Capitol in Frankfort, Ky. on Monday, April 2, 2018. (Alex Slitz/Lexington Herald-Leader/TNS via Getty Images)
FRANKFORT, KY - APRIL 2: Public school teachers and their supporters protest against a pension reform bill outside the senate chambers at the Kentucky State Capitol April 2, 2018 in Frankfort, Kentucky. The teachers are calling for higher wages and are demanding that Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin veto a bill that overhauls their pension plan. (Photo by Bill Pugliano/Getty Images)
FRANKFORT, KY - APRIL 2: Thousands of public school teachers and their supporters protest against a pension reform bill at the Kentucky State Capitol April 2, 2018 in Frankfort, Kentucky. The teachers are calling for higher wages and are demanding that Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin veto a bill that overhauls their pension plan. (Photo by Bill Pugliano/Getty Images)
FRANKFORT, KY - APRIL 2: Thousands of public school teachers and their supporters protest against a pension reform bill at the Kentucky State Capitol April 2, 2018 in Frankfort, Kentucky. The teachers are calling for higher wages and are demanding that Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin veto a bill that overhauls their pension plan. (Bill Pugliano/Getty Images)
FRANKFORT, KY - APRIL 2: Public school teachers and their supporters protest against a pension reform bill outside the senate chambers at the Kentucky State Capitol April 2, 2018 in Frankfort, Kentucky. The teachers are calling for higher wages and are demanding that Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin veto a bill that overhauls their pension plan. (Photo by Bill Pugliano/Getty Images)
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The protests come a month after teachers in West Virginia staged a series of strikes for nearly two weeks before winning a pay raise. Last week teachers in Arizona also rallied for more educational funding.

"We won't let anyone disinvest in public education. We are here for the long haul," Alicia Priest, head of the Oklahoma Education Association, told a cheering crowd outside the statehouse. Organizers estimated the turnout at 30,000, including parents, students and other supporters.

In a display reminiscent of some of the biggest protest rallies across the country in recent years, teachers carried signs emblazoned with slogans such as "Our students deserve better" and "Public Edu is an investment in our future."

Educators say years of austerity in many states have led to wage stagnation and the hollowing-out of school systems. West Virginia, Kentucky and Oklahoma all have Republican governors and Republican-controlled legislatures that have resisted tax increases.

RELATED: A look back at the statewide West Virginia protest

24 PHOTOS
Statewide teacher strike in West Virginia, Kentucky
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Statewide teacher strike in West Virginia, Kentucky
Thousands of Kentucky school teachers marched Monday, April 2, 2018 from the Kentucky Education Association's headquarters to the State Capitol in Frankfort, Ky. to protest legislative changes to their pensions and education cuts. Public schools in all 120 Kentucky counties were closed Monday, either to join in the protest or because of spring break. (Charles Bertram/Lexington Herald-Leader/TNS via Getty Images)
Thousands of Kentucky school teachers marched Monday, April 2, 2018 from the Kentucky Education Association's headquarters to the State Capitol in Frankfort, Ky. to protest legislative changes to their pensions and education cuts. Public schools in all 120 Kentucky counties were closed Monday, either to join in the protest or because of spring break. (Charles Bertram/Lexington Herald-Leader/TNS via Getty Images)
Thousands of Kentucky teachers rallied at the state Capitol in Frankfort, Ky. on Monday, April 2, 2018. (Alex Slitz/Lexington Herald-Leader/TNS via Getty Images)
OKLAHOMA CITY, OK - APRIL 2: An Oklahoma teacher walks the picket line at the state capitol on April 2, 2018 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. Thousands of teachers and supporters are scheduled to rally Monday at the state Capitol calling for higher wages and better school funding. Teachers are walking off the job after a $6,100 pay raise was rushed through the Legislature and signed into law by Gov. Mary Fallin. (Photo by J Pat Carter/Getty Images)
OKLAHOMA CITY, OK - APRIL 2: Ella Roach holds a protest sign in support of her teacher, Kimberly Cox, during a rally at the state capitol on April 2, 2018 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. Thousands of teachers and supporters are scheduled to rally Monday at the state Capitol calling for higher wages and better school funding. Teachers are walking off the job after a $6,100 pay raise was rushed through the Legislature and signed into law by Gov. Mary Fallin. (Photo by J Pat Carter/Getty Images)
OKLAHOMA CITY, OK - APRIL 2: Conner McElveen, an Oklahoma City teacher, holds a protest sign about the lacking of taxation on the oil industry, at the state capitol on April 2, 2018 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. Thousands of teachers and supporters are scheduled to rally Monday at the state Capitol calling for higher wages and better school funding. Teachers are walking off the job after a $6,100 pay raise was rushed through the Legislature and signed into law by Gov. Mary Fallin. (Photo by J Pat Carter/Getty Images)
Teachers and demonstrators hold signs during a rally outside the West Virginia Capitol in Charleston, West Virginia, U.S., on Friday, March 2, 2018. A week ago, thousands of public school teachers in West Virginia went out on strike, a rare but familiar union-organized action to protest low wages and rising health-care costs. Tuesday night, state union leaders and the Governor Jim Justice reached a deal, and the teachers were expected to be back at work on Thursday, but they didn't go. Unsatisfied with the resolution, they stayed on the picket line, mounting one of the country's biggest unauthorized 'wildcat' strikes in decades. Photographer: Scott Heins/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Teachers and demonstrators gather during a rally outside the West Virginia Capitol in Charleston, West Virginia, U.S., on Friday, March 2, 2018. A week ago, thousands of public school teachers in West Virginia went out on strike, a rare but familiar union-organized action to protest low wages and rising health-care costs. Tuesday night, state union leaders and the Governor Jim Justice reached a deal, and the teachers were expected to be back at work on Thursday, but they didn't go. Unsatisfied with the resolution, they stayed on the picket line, mounting one of the country's biggest unauthorized 'wildcat' strikes in decades. Photographer: Scott Heins/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Teachers and demonstrators hold signs during a rally outside the West Virginia Capitol in Charleston, West Virginia, U.S., on Friday, March 2, 2018. A week ago, thousands of public school teachers in West Virginia went out on strike, a rare but familiar union-organized action to protest low wages and rising health-care costs. Tuesday night, state union leaders and the Governor Jim Justice reached a deal, and the teachers were expected to be back at work on Thursday, but they didn't go. Unsatisfied with the resolution, they stayed on the picket line, mounting one of the country's biggest unauthorized 'wildcat' strikes in decades. Photographer: Scott Heins/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Teachers and demonstrators hold signs and chant during a rally outside the West Virginia Capitol in Charleston, West Virginia, U.S., on Friday, March 2, 2018. A week ago, thousands of public school teachers in West Virginia went out on strike, a rare but familiar union-organized action to protest low wages and rising health-care costs. Tuesday night, state union leaders and the Governor Jim Justice reached a deal, and the teachers were expected to be back at work on Thursday, but they didn't go. Unsatisfied with the resolution, they stayed on the picket line, mounting one of the country's biggest unauthorized 'wildcat' strikes in decades. Photographer: Scott Heins/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Striking teachers stand on a small picket line outside the West Virginia Capitol in Charleston, West Virginia, U.S., on Friday, March 2, 2018. A week ago, thousands of public school teachers in West Virginia went out on strike, a rare but familiar union-organized action to protest low wages and rising health-care costs. Tuesday night, state union leaders and the Governor Jim Justice reached a deal, and the teachers were expected to be back at work on Thursday, but they didn't go. Unsatisfied with the resolution, they stayed on the picket line, mounting one of the country's biggest unauthorized 'wildcat' strikes in decades. Photographer: Scott Heins/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Demonstrators hold a sign reading '#55United' during a rally outside the West Virginia Capitol in Charleston, West Virginia, U.S., on Friday, March 2, 2018. A week ago, thousands of public school teachers in West Virginia went out on strike, a rare but familiar union-organized action to protest low wages and rising health-care costs. Tuesday night, state union leaders and the Governor Jim Justice reached a deal, and the teachers were expected to be back at work on Thursday, but they didn't go. Unsatisfied with the resolution, they stayed on the picket line, mounting one of the country's biggest unauthorized 'wildcat' strikes in decades. Photographer: Scott Heins/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Striking school workers hold signs and chant inside the West Virginia Capitol in Charleston, West Virginia, U.S., on Friday, March 2, 2018. A week ago, thousands of public school teachers in West Virginia went out on strike, a rare but familiar union-organized action to protest low wages and rising health-care costs. Tuesday night, state union leaders and the Governor Jim Justice reached a deal, and the teachers were expected to be back at work on Thursday, but hey didn't go. Unsatisfied with the resolution, they stayed on the picket line, mounting one of the country's biggest unauthorized 'wildcat' strikes in decades. Photographer: Scott Heins/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Support and SOLIDARITY for the underpaid teachers of West Virginia who are fighting for higher wages at a time when… https://t.co/g0kzb2psXI
West Virginia's public schools are closed for a third day today after nearly 20,000 public school teachers walked o… https://t.co/vrIPUX2jIW
All 680 public schools in West Virginia are closed. Here's why: https://t.co/k8PImg4xDr https://t.co/9oxzlV92Bk
BREAKING: West Virginia teachers still aren’t going back to work. Union leaders just announced that the strike will… https://t.co/3npM2CL0X5
Teachers in West Virginia are still feeding their students during an expected two-day strike https://t.co/H58LZ1eh7N https://t.co/FuRRmTOuAR
I’m always shocked how little teachers are paid. Don’t our representatives know that teachers have one of the harde… https://t.co/h9cqyXk9En
West Virginia teachers are making sure their students get fed while they're on strike https://t.co/wtywBsmquu
Organizers say teachers in West Virginia are so poorly paid that some must take second jobs to make ends meet https://t.co/Wryo0CEsSl
A teacher's strike is keeping public schools closed for a third day in West Virginia. https://t.co/uVDGQQnepY
As of Sunday, all 55 counties in West Virginia had preemptively called off school for today. https://t.co/zBQGviPTd1
OKLAHOMA CITY, OK - APRIL 2: A teacher holds a protest sign at the state capitol on April 2, 2018 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. Thousands of teachers and supporters are scheduled to rally Monday at the state Capitol calling for higher wages and better school funding. Teachers are walking off the job after a $6,100 pay raise was rushed through the Legislature and signed into law by Gov. Mary Fallin. (Photo by J Pat Carter/Getty Images)
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Thousands of protesting teachers and their supporters, many of them bused in from across the state, filled the Capitol grounds in Oklahoma City and spilled over into the surrounding streets. After the rally, they swarmed hallways of the statehouse to press their demands.

Schools in the state's two biggest cities, Tulsa and Oklahoma City, will remain closed on Tuesday as the walkout extends into a second day, officials said. The Oklahoman newspaper listed more than two dozen districts that would be closed for at least another day.

"When our members believe the legislature has committed to funding our children's future, they will return to the classroom," the union said in a statement posted online, adding that teachers would decide each day how much longer to remain off the job.

Oklahoma legislators last week approved, and Governor Mary Fallin signed into law, the state's first major tax hike in a quarter century - a $450 million revenue package intended to help fund teacher raises and avert a strike.

But teachers said the package fell short of their demands, including union calls to reverse spending cuts that forced some districts to impose four-day school weeks.

Levata Mickelson, a Spanish teacher from Yukon, just west of Oklahoma City, said she had to work a second full-time job at Walmart to make ends meet. She said she worried that many teachers would end up leaving Oklahoma for states with higher pay.

"When I retire, will there be someone to replace me?" she said as educators picketed the statehouse.

According to National Education Association estimates for 2016, Oklahoma ranked 48th in average U.S. classroom teacher salary. 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.

Oklahoma's inflation-adjusted general funding per student declined by 28.2 percent between 2008 and 2018, the biggest drop of any state, according to the nonpartisan Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

In Kentucky, teachers were angered by the surprise passage of a bill last week that mandates a hybrid pension plan with individual retirement accounts for new hires.

"It's really hard to go to work every day when you don't feel your government is behind you," protesting teacher Shelli Stinson told Louisville television station WLKY.

(Additional reporting by Jon Herskovitz in Austin, Texas, and Ian Simpson in Washington; Additional reporting by Bernie Woodall in Fort Lauderdale; Writing by Jon Herskovitz; Editing by Tom Brown and Leslie Adler)

 

 

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