It was April 2nd when Oklahoma teachers decided to take action for the sake of education. Tens of thousands of teachers from all over the state of Oklahoma marched towards the state capital of Oklahoma City. According to the Oklahoma Teacher Walkout page on Facebook, nearly 30,000 teachers confronted the Oklahoma State Capitol. They demanded the state provide $3.3 billion over the course of three years for improved benefits, school funding, and a pay raise for teachers and supporting staff such as custodians and bus drivers. Alongside the teachers were students, parents, activists and state workers.
To discover the cause of this crisis, we must look back at the actions of the Republican government of Oklahoma. Lawmakers cut business taxes and the tax rates of top income earners for the purpose of creating an economic boom. Instead, the opposite occurred and a billion dollar budget gap was made. As a result, the government decided to make cuts to many areas including education in an attempt to make up for the gap. These cuts led to 20% of Oklahoma public schools having to switch to a four-day school week.
The protesters wanted a $10,000 pay raise for teachers over three years, a $7,000 pay raise for support staff over three years, raises for all state employees and $200 million in school funding. In addition, they wanted an improvement in pensions and benefits like health care.
When looking at the situation, it’s easy to understand why teachers and other education workers are frustrated with their state legislators. It has been 10 years since the last teacher pay raise. For many, current salaries are just not enough. In 2016, the average salary for a teacher in Oklahoma was $45,276 with many making much less.
Thousands of teachers are so desperate that some are working second and third jobs! It’s no wonder that Oklahoma ranks 49th in the United States when it comes to average teacher salaries. To make matters worse, teachers are leaving Oklahoma. A quarter of Oklahoma City teachers leave every year, prompting the state to give out thousands of emergency teaching certificates. More and more students are finding themselves to be taught by uncertified teachers.
Despite the urgent call for an increase in the salaries of teachers and supporting staff, it is not the only reason to rebel. Although Oklahoma teachers received a $6,100 raise prior to the strike, there was no increase in funding for schools and supporting staff. A number of Oklahoma public school teachers spend extra hours taping worn out books and repairing broken and ancient supplies.
Republican governor Mary Fallin didn’t help her government’s image by commenting on teachers’ demands. Governor Fallin compared the struggle of educators to “a teenage kid that wants a better car”. Understandably, teachers weren’t pleased with Fallin’s comments.
Oklahoma teachers drew inspiration from their comrades in West Virginia where earlier in the year, teachers went on strike for nine days with similar demands. West Virginian teachers eventually got a pay raise and teachers in Oklahoma hope for the same. Teachers in Kentucky are also joining the fight for education and Arizona might follow suit.
We in B.C. have gone through a similar experience in the past. Some of us may have a vague memory of the 2014 dispute between the B.C. Teachers’ Federation and Christy Clark’s government, which eventually triggered a teachers’ strike.
Regardless of the outcome of this conflict, it is clear that educators in many U.S. states are fed up with their governments and realize that organizing as a collective is an effective way to have their voices heard, in order to improve their children’s education and future.