Oklahoma And Kentucky Teachers Join The Wave Of Strikes For Better Pay And Funding (Video)

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Teachers are not celebrities.

They travel to classrooms all over America every day to put their sweat and tears into a mostly thankless job for students, many of whom do not want to be in school, for very little return on their investment.

Teachers are notoriously underpaid, undervalued, and marginalized. We mostly hear about them around election time before moving on to more salacious material.

We’ve been hearing a lot about teachers lately, though.

In what has been labeled an “Arab spring for teachers,” strikes in historically low-paying states are gaining momentum. Educators are standing up for better pay, better funding, and the rights they and their students have been denied too long.

Following their peers in West Virginia, who received a 5% pay rise along with other concessions, Kentucky teachers in over 25 counties struck last Friday to protest changes to the state’s pension plan threatening to increase eligibility ages, impose requirements for future teachers to receive cash balance plans instead of traditional pensions, and grant permission to lawmakers to ignore previously negotiated collective bargaining agreements and reduce teachers’ pension plans on a whim.

Meanwhile in Oklahoma, teachers’ salaries–$45,276–rank 49th in the nation, nearly $13,077 below the nationwide average of $58,353, and New York’s nationwide high of $79,152.

The Oklahoma legislature passed a raise equal to a $6,000 average, but teachers state this is insufficient due to how low they would remain on the national scale and how basic requirements to accommodate students would continue to be underfunded. They demand a $10,000 raise and increased funding for books, curriculum, and staff.

The Oklahoma Education Association said in a statement:

“Over a decade of neglect by the legislature has given our students broken chairs in classrooms, outdated textbooks that are duct-taped together, four-day school weeks, classes that have exploded in size and teachers who have been forced to donate plasma, work multiple jobs and go to food pantries to provide for their families. We are saying enough. No more empty promises. The governor and legislature need to act now to fix this.”

Arizona, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and other states all also considering action.

What is unique about these strikes is that they are occurring without union leadership approval. Rank-and-file members are organizing via social media and other local outlets.

Veteran union organizer, Ed Allen, leads Oklahoma’s largest American Federation of Teachers (AFT) local of Oklahoma City. He tried dissuading teachers from striking after the legislature granted their raise.

He said:

“This social media crowd is adding a different element that I haven’t seen before.” 

Lexington and Louisville, Kentucky teachers waged a wildcat “sick out” to protest the state’s legislature pension cuts. They too did not wait for union approval.

Louisville teacher Kelsey Hayes Cotts said:

“[Jefferson County Teachers Association] and [Kentucky Education Association] did not call this sick out. This call comes from the rank and file. This is a true grassroots movement. A lot of teachers were inspired by what happened in West Virginia. I think West Virginia sent a signal to people that this can happen. It works and it sent a signal to the nation.”

In an interview with the CBS Evening News on Monday, Republican Oklahoma governor, Mary Fallin, accused teachers of being “greedy” and receiving backing from “antifa.”

She said:

“Teachers want more. But it’s kind of like having a teenage kid that wants a better car.”

But it isn’t just about salary. Teachers also want the legislature to increase spending on classroom resources that will benefit their students.

For example, teachers in some schools do not assign homework because their districts cannot afford to replace textbooks.

Fourth-grade teacher in Rollingwood Elementary School in Putnam City, Oklahoma, Kelsey Laster, said:

“Honestly, students feel like [education] is not important. People don’t look at them like they are important so they don’t look at it like it’s important.”

According to an Oklahoma Policy Institute report, Oklahoma has cut more than $192 million since 2009, more than any state in the union. The state would have an additional $356 million for on K-12 education and $238 million for higher education if it had not cut taxes on natural gas, oil, and personal income.

Wednesday, more than 400 educators converged on Daniel Webster High School in Tulsa to launch a six-day, six hours a day, 110-mile trek across the Oklahoma plains from Tulsa to Oklahoma City.

National Education Association (NEA) secretary-treasurer, Princess Moss, said about the journey:

“If you can walk 100 miles then what can our legislators do here in Oklahoma? Hold them accountable and walk until you get what you need for our students and public education here in Oklahoma.”

Wheelchair-bound special education teacher Patricia Mott, 66, hopes to keep pace with the others, but her wheelchair’s battery only allows her to travel 10 miles a day.

Wiping away tears, Mott said:

“Sorry I get so emotional. I just need to take care of my kids, I need to take care of my teachers. I’m 66 years old and everyone says, ‘Why haven’t you retired?’ It’s because I am needed, still needed.”

Image credit: nbcnews.com

Ted Millar is poet and teacher. His poetry has been in featured in myriad literary journals, including Caesura, Circle Show, Cactus Heart, Third Wednesday, and The Voices Project. He is also a contributor to Liberal Nation Rising.