‘Tired of begging’: Teacher rebellion shuts down Oklahoma, Kentucky schools

Classes across Oklahoma and Kentucky were cancelled as teachers went on strike, calling for improved funding for education. See how many teachers rallied in Oklahoma City. USA TODAY

OKLAHOMA CITY — Classes were canceled Monday for hundreds of thousands of students across two states as striking teachers rallied at capitols in Oklahoma and Kentucky to demand improved funding for education.

The walkouts come less than a month after teachers in West Virginia ended a nine-day strike that shuttered schools there and less than a week after thousands of Arizona teachers rallied to demand a 20% pay increase.

Larry Cagle, an English teacher at Thomas Edison Preparatory High School in Tulsa, was one of thousands of teachers gathered at the capitol in Oklahoma City.

“We’ve gotten tired of begging for everything,” said Cagle, a co-founder of the grassroots advocacy group Oklahoma Teachers United. “Teachers, students and the community have decided enough is enough.”

Oklahoma ranks near the bottom among states in average pay for its teachers, who are striking despite a $6,100 pay raise signed into law last week by Gov. Mary Fallin. Oklahoma Education Association President Alicia Priest called the legislation a “down payment.”

The association, the state’s largest teachers union, is calling for $10,000 raises over three years, $5,000 raises for bus drivers, custodians and other staff and restoration of more than $100 million in education funding trimmed in the last decade.

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.

“The funding issue is the biggest roadblock we have right now,” he said. “When you have to Band-Aid everything together, it’s frustrating.”

Despite the frustration and even anger, the mood inside Oklahoma’s capitol was upbeat and something of an expo, with legislators offering hot coffee and bagels to protesting teachers and their supporters.

Waynelle Mason, 63, was among the state workers who showed up to support teachers — and rally for raises for state employees. Mason says she earns less at the Oklahoma Department of Human Services than she did nine years ago because workers haven’t received cost of living raises.

“We don’t take care of our kids in any way, shape or form” in Oklahoma, Mason said. “My kids were with their teacher almost as much of their waking time as they were with me. You take care of people like that.”

In Kentucky, teachers met at the union’s headquarters in Frankfort before marching to the Statehouse. Kentucky Education Association president Stephanie Winkler said educators will be closely watching legislative proposals for education spending.

Teachers became outraged last week when the state legislature, struggling to fund the public employee retirement system, passed a bill to overhaul the pensions. That prompted more than 500 teachers to flood the Capitol on Friday to protest. The crowd ballooned into the thousands Monday.

Teachers also oppose financing proposals for privately run, publicly financed charter schools.

“We will remember in November,” some chanted. All 100 seats in the Kentucky House of Representatives are up for election this year. Primary races are set for May with the general election set for fall.

Cagle said his high school ranks among the best in Oklahoma, in an upper-middle class community where parents are happy to give extra money to schools. But he fully understands that many schools aren’t so lucky.

“I think the teachers are fully prepared to go all the way through the school year. Bring it!” Cagle said. “There is an overwhelming commitment by parents and students saying ‘Stand up and protect our school system.’ “

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