‘We’re not leaving!’ Oklahoma teachers in second day of protests

By Lenzy Krehbiel-Burton and Nick Oxford

TULSA, Okla./OKLAHOMA CITY (Reuters) – Oklahoma teachers walked out of classes for a second straight day on Tuesday, closing schools in the state’s two biggest cities, as they demanded higher state spending on public education in the latest U.S. labor action by educators.

Hundreds of teachers crowded into the state capital, 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 the state school budget. Teachers, parents and students staged sympathy rallies around the state.

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 Oklahoman newspaper listed about 70 schools or districts that were shuttered on Tuesday. The walkouts follow a two-week job action in West Virginia that led lawmakers last month to vote to raise teachers’ pay. Educators in Kentucky also staged walkouts against years of stagnant or reduced budgets by a Republican-controlled legislature and most returned to their classrooms or scheduled spring break holidays on Tuesday.

Teachers in Arizona have threatened similar job actions.

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

“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. My hope is that this doesn’t fall on deaf ears.”

Monday’s walkout by up to 30,000 educators in Oklahoma forced the cancellation of classes for some 500,000 of the state’s 700,000 public school students, according to teachers’ union officials, who estimated that a similar number of teachers took part in Tuesday’s action.

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 fell short 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.

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 Kelly, 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,” Kelly 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 and Jonathan Allen in New York; writing by Scott Malone; editing by Bernadette Baum and Bill Trott)