Oklahoma teachers walked off the job on Monday, closing schools statewide, as they became the latest U.S. educators to demand pay raises and more funding for a school system reeling from a decade of budget cuts.
The strike by some of the lowest-paid educators in the nation came the same day that Kentucky teachers dressed in red T-shirts flooded that state's capital demanding pension security, following a similar successful wage-strike about a month ago by teachers in West Virginia.
Teachers say years of budget austerity in many states have led to the stagnation of already poor salaries.
In Oklahoma City, a band of teachers played "We're Not Gonna Take It," as buses of educators from across the state arrived at the Capitol. Protesters carried signs reading: "How can you put students first if you put teachers last?" ahead of a rally expected to draw thousands.
"I am disgusted with the cuts, and deeper and deeper cuts," said Betty Gerber, a retired teacher from Broken Arrow, Okla.
Oklahoma's Republican-controlled legislature last week approved the state's first major tax increase in a quarter century to help fund pay raises for teachers, hoping to avert a strike with a $450 million revenue package.
The funding would raise by $5,000 the pay of teachers beginning their career, and provide a raise of nearly $8,000 for those with 25 years' experience, lawmakers said.
The increase fell short of the demand from the largest teachers' union in the state, the Oklahoma Education Association, for a $10,000 pay increase over three years for teachers and a $5,000 raise for support personnel.
According to National Education Association estimates for 2016, Oklahoma ranked 48th, followed by Mississippi at 49 and South Dakota at 50, in terms of average U.S. classroom teacher salary.
Oklahoma secondary school teachers had an annual mean wage of $42,460 as of May 2016, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The minimum salary for a first-year teacher was $31,600, state data showed.
The mean wage for teachers in every neighboring state is higher, causing many experienced teachers to leave Oklahoma, where some budget-strained districts have been forced to implement four-day school weeks.
On a state level, the inflation-adjusted general funding per student in Oklahoma dropped by 28.2 percent between 2008 and 2018, the biggest cut of any state, according to the nonpartisan Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.