Teaching Profession

Thousands of Teachers. 4 States. Your Guide to the Protests Sweeping the Nation

By Madeline Will — April 04, 2018 5 min read
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Today marks day three of the Oklahoma teacher walkout—and local reports say that crowds are showing no signs of diminishing.

The walkout will continue tomorrow—Oklahoma City schools, along with several other districts, have already announced they will be closed. Still, some teachers have been yanked back to the classroom: Officials of a small school district in Oklahoma City told teachers they could be disciplined if they didn’t report back to work.

However, teachers still have community support—a poll commissioned by the Oklahoma Education Association and conducted this week found that 77 percent of Oklahomans support teachers. Nearly 70 percent of the 464 people surveyed said they support a teacher walkout—an uptick from the 58 percent who supported the walkout last week.

How did teachers get here? Here’s a roundup of Education Week‘s reporting on the teacher walkouts and protests in Oklahoma, West Virginia, Arizona, and Kentucky.

It all started last month in West Virginia, where teachers went on strike for nine school days over rising health-insurance premiums and low pay. On March 6, the state legislature struck a deal to give all teachers a 5 percent pay raise, which ended the strike.

The 2017 West Virginia Teacher of the Year, Toni M. Poling, wrote for Education Week Teacher that she was “wracked with guilt” when she left the classroom to stand at the picket line. But she asked herself, “If not now, when? If not us, who?”

The strike was chaotic and unorthodox. But it inspired teachers across the country to ask: “Could this happen here?” An Arizona grassroots teacher group spokeswoman told my colleague Daarel Burnette that the West Virginia strike emboldened educators in the Grand Canyon State. “The feeling is, if they’re paid better than us and they went on strike, why aren’t we doing this?,” she said.

Now in its third day, the Oklahoma statewide walkout has been brewing for about a month, due to growing anger and frustration among educators about low pay and cuts to education funding. Teachers in Oklahoma hadn’t received a pay raise in a decade, and they’re among the lowest paid educators in the country.

I went to Oklahoma, and teachers there told me about the personal cost of low pay—including holding down second jobs, having to quit teaching to make more elsewhere, seeing beloved colleagues leave.

One Oklahoma native wrote that she taught in Arizona and Florida, but when she considered returning home to the Sooner State, she realized she would have to take a pay cut of at least $17,000 if she wanted to remain a teacher. She had to make the “heart-wrenching” decision to leave the classroom.

Teachers in the state had been calling for a pay raise of $10,000 over three years and $200 million in education funding. Last week, the state legislature passed a $6,100 pay raise—part of a funding package that included the first tax increase in nearly three decades.

Teachers have said that’s not enough, and they are gathering at the state capitol every day this week. But state legislators have told teachers they are “losing support,” and the governor has said the state can only “do what our budget allows.” It’s not clear how long district leaders will be willing to close schools, which could influence the length of the walkout. But the Tulsa superintendent has said she stands with her teachers and will close schools for as long as teachers want to be out.

Still looking for more information? A West Virginia professor rounded up five things to know about the Oklahoma teacher walkout.

Kentucky teachers are back in the classroom (or on spring break) now, but on March 30, hundreds of teachers called in sick with the “pension flu.” They were protesting a pension reform bill passed by the legislature that placed new teachers in a retirement plan that’s a mix of a traditional pension and a 401(k)-style plan. The bill also removes new hires from an “inviolable contract” that would protect them from future benefit changes.

Lawmakers didn’t include a provision that had fueled teacher anger—cutting yearly cost-of-living increases for retired teachers from 1.5 percent to 1 percent. But teachers still met at the state capitol on April 2 to protest the bill and urge the lawmakers to pass a budget that includes higher spending for public education. While most schools in the state were on spring break on April 2, the budget rally forced at least 20 school districts to close. (Legislators did increase per-pupil funding in the budget, which still has to be signed by the governor.)

Confused about how teacher pensions work? Check out our explainer on teacher salaries, pensions, and benefits.

Now, Arizona is the next state where teachers are threatening to take action. At a rally last week, thousands of teachers rallied at the state capitol to demand a 20 percent pay increase and $1 billion back in funding to the public school system. The state has cut more school funding over the past decade than any other state, an analysis found.

The state’s Republican governor, Doug Ducey, said teachers shouldn’t get their hopes up for a 20 percent raise this year. The state legislature is currently debating a budget that provides teachers with a 1 percent pay raise.

It’s important to note that these teacher uprisings, particularly the ones in Arizona and Oklahoma, are taking place largely on Facebook. Teachers’ unions, for the most part, are playing a support role—all four of these states have right-to-work laws, meaning that the unions there don’t have a strong hold over educators.

What’s next? Teachers in North Carolina are planning an advocacy day in the state capitol on May 16 when the legislature reconvenes. And a Dallas Morning News columnist floated the question: Should teachers there walk out, too?

Want a quick explainer of the teacher walkouts in video form? Check out this PBS Newshour clip:

Image 1: Teachers and students gather at the state Capitol as protests over school funding continue for the third day in Oklahoma City, April 4. —Sue Ogrocki/AP

Image 2: Teachers and education advocates march at the Arizona Capitol, protesting low teacher pay and school funding on March 28 in Phoenix. —Ross D. Franklin/AP

A version of this news article first appeared in the Teacher Beat blog.