The wave of teacher protests in recent weeks has shown no signs of slowing down. School districts in Oklahoma and Kentucky were forced to close due to statewide teacher sickouts. Thousands of Oklahoma and Kentucky teachers rallied Monday at their state capitals, demanding more education funding for students. Many say they’ll keep fighting until lawmakers meet their demands.
The state of Oklahoma has the lowest average teacher salaries in the US with many teachers saying they have not received a pay raise in 10 years. Many say that the lack of funding and low wages keep new teachers out of their districts which have seen classroom sizes swell to 40 kids because of teacher shortages.
The Oklahoma teachers union wants $10,000 raises for teachers, $5,000 raises for support staff such as janitors and cafeteria workers and $200 million in education funding. Ultimately, the governor signed legislation last week granting teachers’ pay raises of about $6,100, raises of $1,250 for support staff and $50 million in education funding. The state’s two largest school districts, Oklahoma City and Tulsa, announced that schools would be closed Monday as the strike enters its second week.
In an effort to produce for state revenue so more can be allocated to education funding, the Oklahoma Education Association (OEA), working in collaboration with lawmakers, is seeking to end the strike by Tuesday following Friday’s passage of a revenue and tax bill that is expected to raise $20 million from an internet sales tax and $24 million from the legalization of “ball and dice” gambling in the state. The union praised the senate’s action on Friday and called for two additional measures of removing capital gains exemptions, saying that this would add an additional $100 million in revenue, and for Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin to veto the repeal of a tax on guests at hotels and motels—another regressive measure.
Meanwhile, more than 30 Kentucky school districts had schools close after massive teacher call outs. Educators were furious after the state Legislature approved changes to their pension the day before. Kentucky teachers have opposed changes to their pension, which was in Senate Bill 1 that proposed reducing benefits. But in a surprise move, elements of Senate Bill 1 were tucked into another bill, Senate Bill 151, which had been about sewage services. The nearly 300-page Senate Bill 151 passed both the state House and Senate on Thursday.
The Kentucky Education Association, which represents teachers and other education professionals, slammed the maneuver as a “classic legislative bait and switch.” “It stripped all the ‘local provision of wastewater services’ language out of SB151 and replaced it with many of the harmful provisions of SB1,” the association stated.
Under the new pension bill, new hires will have to use a hybrid cash balance plan, rather than a traditional pension, which will drive new teachers to leave the state. Other elements of the bill include limiting the number of sick days teachers can put toward their retirement and no changes to the annual cost of living adjustments, which will remain 1.5%.
Gov. Matt Bevin supports reforming the system and says it’s critical to fix the pension crisis, which ranks as one of the worst in the US. He said a wider demonstration like a teacher strike would be “illegal.” “I would not advise that,” Bevin said during a Capitol news conference. “I really wouldn’t. I think that would be a mistake.” In Kentucky, public employees are prohibited from striking.