By Grace Donnelly
April 3, 2018

Oklahoma teachers shut down schools for the second day in a row Tuesday as part of a fight for higher salaries and more school funding.

The strike, the most recent in a string by teachers in several states including West Virginia, Kentucky, and Arizona, began just a day after Oklahoma state legislators passed a tax increase that teachers there say would not provide enough extra funding.

As educators and lawmakers continue to face off across the country, take a look at the recent history of teacher pay and school funding.

What led Oklahoma teachers to protest?

Oklahoma public school teachers are some of the lowest-paid in the nation. State funding for public schools has dropped nearly 9% since 2008, at the same time student enrollment rose by more than 8%. Oklahoma’s general education funding is down 28% per student over the same period when adjusted for inflation, according to The Oklahoman’s Ben Felder.

The U.S. is also dealing with a teacher shortage. For example, Oklahoma schools are hiring a record number of teachers with temporary emergency certifications and who lack formal education training.

What’s happened so far?

The strikes began in late February in West Virginia, where teachers left their jobs for nine days before getting a 5% raise.

Teachers in other states soon followed suit. “I got on Facebook and I typed in … Oklahoma walkout, teacher walkouts,” Alberto Morejon, an 8th grade teacher and baseball coach in Oklahoma who was inspired by the West Virginia protests, told CNN. “Nothing popped up and I was like — why not be the guy that makes the group? Now it has 72,000 people … next thing you know it just exploded.”

On March 8, Oklahoma teachers asked for more than $800 million in new school and state funding, including a $10,000 raise and $200 million in additional school funding.

The Oklahoma House and Senate approved a $447 million tax increase on March 29. The package includes a $6,100 average pay raise for teachers along with $33 million for textbooks and $18 million in additional school funding. Republican Gov. Mary Fallin signed the bill that gives a 15% and 18% raise to most Oklahoma teachers. But the educators say this is still not enough for them to serve students and they shut down schools again Monday to march to the capitol.

“It’s more than the numbers. It’s more than a raise. We need funding for our kids, and we need to be respected as professionals,” Ellen Kraft, a teacher at Truman Primary in Norman, told Oklahoma’s News 4. “You can’t cut 28%, and then fill it with half of that and call it a day. There’s more work to be done than that.”

The protest continued Tuesday, with classes cancelled in 20 of Oklahoma’s largest school districts that serve 230,000 students.

What are the Oklahoma teachers asking for?

Though it took a historic three-fourths majority for state lawmakers to pass the tax increase last week, teachers are noting that the package only partially fulfills their requests for raises and additional classroom funding.

About 25,000 teachers showed up to the capitol Monday, but it seems some Oklahoma lawmakers have already checked the issue off their agendas. Sen. Marty Quinn, R-Claremore, said he and his colleagues had made every effort to address teacher pay and have done a good job, adding that there are 72 other agencies that also have needs that lawmakers must address.

How much do Oklahoma teachers make?

Teachers in Oklahoma are among the lowest paid educators in the country. The average teacher there earns $42,400 annually, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, compared to the national average of $61,420.

Educators say they have a hard time supporting their basic needs on a teacher’s salary. Many take on second or third jobs to pay for food and healthcare.

“If I didn’t have a second job, I’d be on food stamps,” Rae Lovelace, a third grade teacher from northwest Oklahoma, told the Associated Press.

How has the average teacher salary changed over time?

Between 1999 and 2017, teacher wages in most states didn’t outpace inflation, according to the National Center for Education statistics. Only seven states gave cumulative raises of 10% or more to teachers over those 18 years when inflation is taken into account.

When inflation is taken into account, classroom teacher salaries in the U.S. declined 3% on average over the last 10 years while salaries for instructional staff declined 2.7%, according to the NEA’s latest report. State funding for education nationwide has fallen 5.4% over the same period when adjusted for inflation.

Will teachers in other states strike?

Emboldened by the raises secured by West Virginia teachers from their Republican-controlled legislatures, educators in several other red states could follow suit.

Teachers in the Denver school district threatened to strike in mid-March after contract negotiations reached a standstill. Instead, educators and lawmakers compromised by extending the current agreement, which is based on increased pay-for-performance, through Jan. 2019. State legislators hope Coloradans will vote to increase taxes in November, the proceeds from which would make increased teacher salaries and school funding more likely.

Hundreds of Arizona teachers also walked out of classrooms last week to confront lawmakers and demand a 20% raise at the state capitol. Teachers in Arizona ranked dead last in salary gains from 2015 to 2016, according to the NEA report, with West Virginia, Indiana, Alabama, and Oklahoma rounding out the bottom five.

“West Virginia woke us up,” Arizona Educators Association President Joe Thomas told a cheering crowd at a protest in Phoenix.

The Kentucky Education Association, the state’s teachers’ union, led a rally and a march on the state capitol in Frankfurt on Monday.

In Texas, teachers expressed their anger at school funding and teacher pay this week, though they are not expected to strike. Educators in states like New Mexico and Alaska have voiced grievances as well.

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