Thousands of teachers skipped school Monday across Oklahoma and Kentucky to attend rallies for higher pay and better benefits, replicating the kind of dramatic tactics that their colleagues in West Virginia used last month to secure their first raise in four years.
Oklahoma public school teachers participated in a statewide walkout, with tens of thousands gathering at the state capitol to urge legislators to increase education funding and salaries. In Kentucky, teachers rallied at the statehouse to protest changes to their pension system.
“What we’ve already seen is the energy here is very, very, very powerful,” said Lily Eskelsen Garcia, president of the National Education Association, after attending Monday’s rally in Oklahoma City. “These are educators who basically feel like they’ve been left with very little to lose.”
The West Virginia strike, which began in late February, lasted nearly two weeks before the governor and legislature approved the full 5 percent raise the teachers sought. In the wake of that successful effort, educators in other states near the bottom of the wage charts were emboldened to test their own leverage.
“They now see that [legislators] have just taken advantage of us,” Eskelsen Garcia said. “They’ve just exploited people who love their students and fill in the funding gap… [Teachers] are saying nothing’s going to get better until we stand up for our students and for ourselves.”
Though the sense of urgency is somewhat new, the problems are not. Teachers in Oklahoma have gone a decade without a raise. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, the state’s education budget has fallen by 28 percent since 2009 while legislators simultaneously slashed taxes by hundreds of millions of dollars.
Oklahoma educators have made their demands clear: $10,000 raises for educators; $5,000 raises for support staff, and $200 million in additional education funding. They have so far not indicated they will settle for much less.
Threats of a walkout already spurred some action that state lawmakers have touted as significant, but teachers say legislation passed last week does not go far enough. The bill provides an average raise of about $6,000 for teachers, a $1,250 raise for support staff, and $50 million in education funding.
“Just like Oklahoma families, we are only able to do what our budget allows. Significant revenue-raising measures were approved to make this pay raise and additional school funding possible. We must be responsible not to neglect other areas of need in the state such as corrections and health and human services as we continue to consider additional education funding measures," Gov. Mary Fallin said Monday. "I look forward to continuing to talk with legislative leaders and teachers as we forge a positive pathway forward for education.”
The situation is slightly different in Kentucky, where teacher complaints are focused on their pensions rather than their compensation and funding. The average teacher salary there was $52,134 in 2016, ranking 26th in the nation, but lawmakers say reforms are needed to keep the state’s pension system from collapsing.
Kentucky’s state retirement systems are staring down a $41 billion shortfall over the next 30 years, among the worst in the nation. Under a bill passed late Thursday, new teaching hires will enter a hybrid cash balance plan that includes a 401(K)-style savings program.
Republican legislators and the governor have insisted the changes will help save the system for the future, but Democrats and teachers’ groups say the 291-page bill was rushed through without proper study.
“Tonight 49 members of the Kentucky House and 22 members of the Kentucky Senate voted not to keep kicking the pension problem down the road,” Republican Gov. Matt Bevin tweeted Thursday night. “Anyone who will receive a retirement check in the years ahead owes a deep debt of gratitude to these 71 men & women who did the right thing.”
Teachers in Arizona are eyeing drastic action as well. After thousands of educators wearing red demonstrated at the state capitol last week, one group is organizing another rally in Tucson on Wednesday demanding a 20 percent raise and restoration of education funding to 2008 levels.
According to the Education Law Center, Arizona’s school system is the second-least adequately funded in the U.S., with spending down 14 percent over the last decade. The average teacher salary has fallen nearly 10 percent in the state since 2010, and one estimate found more than 60 percent of teacher positions are currently vacant or filled by people who do not meet standard teaching requirements.
“I actually think you’re seeing what could be the tip of the iceberg,” said Bob Wise, former West Virginia governor and president of the Alliance for Excellent Education, a DC-based nonprofit organization focused on high school improvement.
Wise cited several reasons why teachers in many states seem to be hitting their breaking point right now. One is that the steady improvement of the economy has not been reflected in their pay and funding. Public concern has grown about a diminishing number of teachers, and the ones who are left are expected to do more for students emotionally, technologically, and educationally.
“Finally, there’s a coalition forming in which the teachers are the point of the spear,” he said. They have significant support from the parents and students in their communities to take aggressive action, even if it does mean shutting down school for a day.
Some districts in Oklahoma took steps to mitigate the inconvenience of a school shutdown, with community centers and churches giving students a place to go or schools sending kids home Friday with prepackaged meals for Monday.
Teachers and education advocates hope the walkouts and rallies will put pressure on other state and local governments to improve working conditions. However, critics accuse teachers’ unions of using underprivileged children as pawns and demanding too much.
“A strike is hugely disruptive to families and kids,” Dan Weisberg, CEO of TNTP, a nonprofit group promoting teacher quality, told the Wall Street Journal. “This is high stakes, and it’s of particular risk in low-wage states.”
The Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, a free market think tank, has argued funds for education should be found by reforming and removing inefficiencies in other programs.
“Teachers need a raise, just like our schools need reforms, but the goal should always be to improve student outcomes,” OCPA President Jonathan Small said in a statement last month. “That, obviously, is not served by a strike. And recent reporting in the Tulsa World suggests that many teachers are far more concerned about working conditions than they are about money.”
Wise acknowledged this is not a problem states can just throw money at, but he also argued the scale of budget cuts some states have faced is untenable.
“Money alone is not the answer, but after a while, disinvestment does begin to catch up with you,” he said.
Exactly how education in these states wound up so poorly underfunded is a subject of debate.
CBPP analysts point fingers at tax cuts, at least in the cases of Oklahoma and Arizona. Both have significantly slashed income tax rates and taxes impacting businesses over the last 12 years, and rolling those cuts back has proven difficult because their legislatures require a supermajority to increase taxes.
“This tax cutting squeezed state general fund dollars — the amount available to lawmakers to fund schools and other state priorities. General fund dollars as a share of personal income are down 30 percent in Arizona, and 35 percent in Oklahoma, since 2006,” Michael Leachman, CBPP director of state fiscal research, wrote in a blog post last week.
Eskelsen Garcia emphasized that these dilemmas are the predictable consequence of deliberate choices in budgeting and state policy.
“This funding crisis is not an act of god,” she said. “This is not a hurricane or a tornado. This is man-made and they can see the formula that brought them to this point.”
The financial crisis tanked tax revenues in 2008, forcing budget cuts, but when the economy recovered, states like Oklahoma did not reverse course on education.
“Some states just kept cutting and it wasn’t a matter of, ‘We don’t have the money.’ It was a matter of, ‘We’ve given away the revenue,’” Eskelsen Garcia said.
Not everyone agrees that rolling back tax cuts is the solution, though.
“Policymakers should turn their attention to their number-one job as an elected official during times like these, which is the tough but necessary work of strong fiscal governance and oversight,” said former Sen. Tom Coburn last week in a statement issued by OCPA. “Opportunities abound to find savings in Oklahoma state government to allow for teachers to be paid significant raises and fund core services.”
Benjamin Scafidi, a fellow at EdChoice and a professor of economics at Kennesaw State University, places blame for low teacher pay in part on schools increasingly directing funds to non-teaching staff. In West Virginia, for example, public school spending increased by 39 percent per student from 1992 to 2014, but average teacher salaries fell by 3 percent. Though enrollment dropped during this period by 12 percent, non-teaching staff—including administrators, district officials, teacher aides, and curriculum specialists—grew by 10 percent.
“States should look to expand school choice and create incentives for schools to compete for teacher talent and students in a more open marketplace,” he wrote in a Fox News op-ed.
While critics of the teachers’ demands focus on the costs of increasing pay for educators, Wise stressed that there is a cost to underpaying them as well. A 2014 study by his organization estimated that the high turnover rate for teachers is costing the U.S. $2.2 billion per year.
“We also need to be looking at what’s the cost when teachers do not stay in the profession or our best teachers choose to leave,” he said.
Wise also observed that the states where problems are occurring do not allow collective bargaining for teachers. That a statewide walkout was possible in a place like West Virginia where teachers have no union protections was noteworthy.
“Teachers as individuals feeling their voice are going to be a very important factor regardless of whether there’s a union involved or not,” he said.
Research by Agustina Paglayan, a postdoctoral fellow at the Center for Global Development, suggested that unionization and collective bargaining rights are not directly responsible for higher wages and education spending. States that have instituted collective bargaining were historically wealthier and more liberal, and they were already more willing to spend money on education before those policies were in place.
In those states, Paglayan found collective bargaining agreements often impose harsh penalties on teachers who strike. In states with weaker collective bargaining rights, teachers have less to lose by walking out.
“Teachers in red states are striking because of their low pay — but that is not because their labor rights are weak. It is because those states have historically paid teachers poorly,” Paglayan wrote in a Washington Post op-ed Monday.
Whatever led to this flashpoint, Eskelsen Garcia is confident Monday’s protests made clear to states that teachers will not silently accept insufficient funding and make up shortfalls in supplies out of their own pockets anymore. In Oklahoma, many school districts planned to remain closed Tuesday as educators await action from the legislature to address their concerns.
“It only gets some people’s attention when you hear that collective voice of 30,000 people saying, ‘You don’t get to do this anymore,’” she said. “’We’re watching you. The public knows what you’re doing that is shamefully hurting our students.’”