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OpEdNews Op Eds    H2'ed 4/4/18

Teachers in Revolt: Meet the Educators in Kentucky & Oklahoma Walking Out over School Funding

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Schools across Oklahoma are closed today for a third day as teachers continue their strike demanding more funding for education and increased pay. Oklahoma's public education budget has been slashed more than any other state since the start of the recession in 2008, and its teachers are among the lowest paid in the nation. Scores of teachers are planning to begin a 123-mile protest march today from Tulsa to Oklahoma City. Meanwhile, thousands of teachers continue to protest in Kentucky, demanding a reversal to a provision in a recently passed bill about sewage treatment that gutted their pension benefits. On Monday, every school in the state was closed either due to spring break or in anticipation of a massive rally in the capital of Frankfort, where teachers filled the rotunda of the Kentucky state Capitol, chanting "Fund our schools!" This year's wave of teacher rebellions began in West Virginia, where teachers won a 5 percent pay raise after an historic strike. We speak to four guests: Oklahoma teacher Andrea Thomas, Kentucky state lawmaker Attica Scott, retired Kentucky teacher Mickey McCoy and labor journalist Mike Elk.

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AMY GOODMAN: Schools across Oklahoma are closed today for a third day as teachers continue their strike demanding more funding for education and increased pay. Oklahoma's public education budget has been slashed more than any other state since the start of the recession in 2008, and its teachers are among the lowest paid in the nation. Scores of teachers are planning to begin a 123-mile protest march today from Tulsa to Oklahoma City.

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Meanwhile, thousands of teachers continue to protest in Kentucky, demanding a reversal to a provision in a recently passed bill about sewage treatment that gutted teacher pension benefits. On Monday, every school in the state was closed either due to spring break or anticipation of a massive rally in the capital of Frankfort, when teachers filled the rotunda of the Kentucky state Capitol, chanting "Fund our schools!" This is Kentucky Education Association President Stephanie Winkler.

STEPHANIE WINKLER: There will be no more bills like that after November. We have to fight for every single new teacher. You can tell me all you want, "It's not going to hurt you." If you hurt one of us, you hurt all of us!

AMY GOODMAN: This year's wave of teacher rebellions began in West Virginia, where teachers won a 5 percent pay raise after an historic strike. The protests have also inspired teachers in other states, including Arizona, where union members are threatening to strike unless their demand for a 20 percent wage increase is met. The teacher protests in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Kentucky and Arizona have been described by some as a "red-state revolt." In 2016, Donald Trump won all four states. Meanwhile, in higher education news, nontenured faculty at Loyola University Chicago are planning to go on strike today.

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For more on teacher uprisings, we go to Oklahoma and Kentucky. We're joined by four guests. In Oklahoma, Andrea Thomas, a 9th and 11th grade English teacher at Newcastle High School outside of Oklahoma City, has taught for 19 years, is now on strike. Mickey McCoy is a retired English teacher and school board member in eastern Kentucky, taught for 27 years. Also in Kentucky, we're joined by Democratic state Representative Attica Scott, who serves on the House Education Committee. In 2016, she became the first African-American woman to serve on Kentucky's state Legislature in 20 years. And we're joined by Mike Elk, senior labor reporter at Payday Report and a correspondent for The Guardian. Elk's recent piece is headlined "'Arab spring for teachers': educators in Oklahoma join wave of strikes."

Mike, let's begin with you in Oklahoma. Just give us an overview of what's taken place.

MIKE ELK: Well, Amy, after the successful West Virginia strike -- a lot of teachers here had already been talking, prior to the West Virginia strike, about organizing some sort of walkout. But when they saw teachers in West Virginia win that nine-day strike, that historic strike, it gave them a lot of confidence to keep pushing. And so, what happened here is that over a hundred school districts throughout the state now are out on strike.

And in some of these school districts, the Democratic superintendents of the schools are actually quite supportive, because of how bad the funding cuts are. My colleague and I, Karina Moreno, the brilliant public administration professor at Long Island-Brooklyn, crunched the numbers. And Oklahoma has cut more from its state budget since 2009 than any other state in the country. It has one of the lowest tax rates on oil and natural gas. The tax rate is effective 3 percent tax rate on oil and natural gas production. In comparison, Texas, neighboring Texas, which pays its teachers a starting salary of $18,000 more, taxes oil and natural gas at an effective rate of 8 percent.

So what we're seeing here is that teachers are demanding a lot more in terms of funding. Already the state has passed a $6,000 pay raise for teachers. But teachers are saying it's about a lot more than a pay raise. It's about funding classrooms. It's about having textbooks. I've talked and interviewed so many teachers that are telling me that they can't even get proper supplies or textbooks. They can't assign homework, because they can't risk losing a $200 textbook. And they tell me that their students know the state's not investing in education. And this is at a time that Oklahoma is booming. You know, you go to downtown Oklahoma City or go to downtown Tulsa, and the place is booming with oil money. So it's a question of taxation, and it's a question of rolling it back. And we're seeing teachers here make a very bold stand. And almost every teacher I talked to emphasizes that this is strike not about raises, but about making sure they get more money for the classroom.

And, you know, it looks like it will go on for at least a week or two. The superintendent in Tulsa, where I'm at, just announced that she would close schools for an entire week. And she's appearing later today, the superintendent of Tulsa, at a rally to kick off a 123-mile march from Tulsa to Oklahoma City, that's expected to take a week. So this strike here will go on for a while, and it looks like the strike in Kentucky will go on for some time, too. And it's going to be incredible to see what kind of ripple effect this has.

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AMY GOODMAN: So, let's go to Andrea Thomas, Andrea Thomas who is in Oklahoma City. You're a teacher. You've been a teacher for almost two decades, you and your husband, in the Oklahoma schools. Talk about why you're striking and what you're demanding.

ANDREA THOMAS: Yes. Well, the Legislature, you know, they have passed the $6,000 raise. And we can live with that. What we're fighting for now is for the kids. Like, I've seen so many signs that have said, "We're here for the kids. We're here for the kids." I've had students come and support us. It's about funding for the classrooms. It's about technology. You know, we're lacking in technology at our school. It's about being able to implement safety measures. We haven't -- you know, in our society today, we'd love to implement more safety measures, but it's so hard to do. Our librarian, she -- you know, we don't have a library budget. If she wants new books for our library, she has to do fundraisers. It's about class size. And my class sizes have grown immensely in the past few years, you know, classes of 35. And it's just so much harder to have a relationship with your students and do what's best for them, whenever you have so many --

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