Teachers Flood Capitol To Protest Pension

Oklahoma teachers walked off the job on Monday, closing schools statewide and surrounding the Capitol to demand pay raises and more funding for a school system reeling from a decade of budget cuts.

Add in the fact that Oklahoma teachers have some of the lowest average salaries in the nation - and many districts in neighboring states, like Texas, can offer a substantial raise - and teachers have been voicing their concerns for years. West Virgina, Kentucky and Oklahoma have Republican governors and legislatures controlled by the party, which has been staunchly opposed to tax increases.

As teachers across the state prepared to rally, four teachers shared in a CNN video the numerous side jobs they have had to take on to make ends meet while educating Oklahoma's schoolchildren. Teachers in Arizona are now considering a strike over their demands for a 20 percent salary increase.

Schools across the state were closed, most because of spring break, but several to allow teachers and other school employees to attend the rally that was organized after hundreds of teachers called in sick Friday to protest last-minute changes to their pension system.

According to National Education Association estimates for 2016, Oklahoma ranked 48th in average USA classroom teacher salary.

For months, Oklahoma teachers have been fighting to get the bare minimum.

Jon Hazell said he was disappointed with what he was hearing from other educators. In fact, I haven't heard much of anything about teacher pay. It's not about being greedy and needing what I need.

Organizers were predicting a turnout of 30,000 in Oklahoma City, where aerial television images showed a large crowd, with many in red shirts, gathered outside the state capitol.

Other districts reported a similar process of polling and responding to teachers' direction on which course to take Monday.

Monday's walkout is part of a wave of protests from educators furious over stagnant wages and cuts to education funding. "They've given tax breaks to big corporations, defunded public schools, and said, 'What could go wrong?'"

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Oklahoma ranks 47th among states and the District of Columbia in public school revenue per student, almost $3,000 below the national average, while its average teacher salary of $45,276 ranked 49th before the latest raises, according to the most recent statistics from the National Education Association. Oklahoma City Public Schools - the largest school district in the state - has already canceled classes for Tuesday.

"You can honor that commitment and say, 'I will do whatever I can.

That's unrealistic. That's just my feeling", said Hazle.

The teacher prayed for her third-grade students, who face a high-stakes reading test this year that will determine whether they advance to fourth grade.

Despite new legislation giving Oklahoma teachers a $6,100 pay raise, educators are still unsatisified.

In Kentucky, teachers were angered by the surprise passage of a bill last week that mandates a hybrid pension plan with individual retirement accounts for new hires.

Frank Solomon, superintendent of Noble Public Schools, said he has had to cut the speech and drama programs in his high schools and push back buying buses and air conditioners.

"We've been cut over 28% in the last 10 years in education funding, and our schools just can't maintain all of the supplies, instructional materials, textbooks, even copy paper", she said.

MPS art teacher Laurissa Kovacs said Wednesday in a Facebook post - which has reached more than 68,000 people - the reason for her decision to walk out is because "these kids deserve the opportunity of a great education". "Anyone who voted yes for this bill will need to start packing up their legislative office". In addition, teachers will have a limited number of sick days that can go toward their retirement.

Bevin, a Republican, has voiced support for the bill and after the legislature passed it Thursday night he tweeted that public workers owe "a deep debt of gratitude" to the state lawmakers.

(Copyright © 2015. All Rights Reserved.)
 
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