Chicago: A teachers’ protest entered its second day in the US state of Oklahoma on Tuesday as lawmakers faced a spreading schoolhouse revolt against a decade of deep cuts to public education.
The teachers’ union organizing the demonstration estimated at least 20,000 people rallied outside the capitol building in Oklahoma City and filled every floor of the rotunda inside — chanting “We’re not leaving” and insisting lawmakers address their concerns.
Some school districts planned to be closed for days. “We can keep it up as long as it takes,” elementary school teacher Jennifer Thornton told AFP. “I certainly hope it doesn’t take longer than this week.” On Monday, tens of thousands of teachers and their supporters descended upon the state capitol while thousands of protesters in Kentucky simultaneously besieged that state’s legislature in the city of Frankfort.
The protests are part of a wave sweeping Republican-dominated states where teachers have had to cope with low pay and cuts to public schools as lawmakers slashed spending. Oklahoma demonstrators were frustrated Tuesday — at one point erupting in jeers — by the Republican-controlled legislature, which adjourned without taking up teachers’ demands for more funding and better pay.
‘You’re wasting your time’
“There a lot of them that say the education budget is done for the year, you’re wasting your time,” Thornton said, referring to legislators who met with teachers Tuesday. Oklahoma lawmakers recently agreed to a rare tax increase to bump teachers’ pay by an average of $6,100 a year. But that was not enough to placate educators, who insist cuts in recent years have been far deeper than what lawmakers have given back.
Teachers complained that their salaries are so low that some of them need second jobs, such as working as restaurant waiters or mowing lawns, to make ends meet. “I have 36 kids in my class. Ten of them don’t have textbooks for math,” Oklahoma teacher Ray Sanders told NBC News. Identifying as a Republican, Sanders threatened to vote out incumbent Republican state legislators in this year’s midterm elections if they were not responsive to teachers’ demands.
“This is bigger than party politics,” he said. “We’ve got money to fix this.” Demonstrators were inspired by their counterparts in West Virginia and Arizona, who also have protested. A nine-day strike last month won West Virginia’s teachers their first pay raise in four years. “Our teachers will be here,” Oklahoma Education Association president Alicia Priest told CNN. “Our community is behind us. We’ve got to get this done for the sake of our kids.”
Oklahoma is one of 12 states that slashed education spending following the 2008 recession and failed to restore those funds as the economy improved, according to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, a left-leaning Washington DC think tank. Teachers in Kentucky did not protest Tuesday because the legislature in that state was not in session, the Kentucky Education Association told AFP.