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Teacher Voices in KY and OK: A Possible National Trend

Nearly a month after a nine-day teacher strike in West Virginia ended, teachers in Kentucky and Oklahoma staged their own walkouts and rallies this week, pushing for higher pay and increased financial support in their classrooms.

Facing prolonged pay freezes, changes to pensions, and outdated teaching materials, frustrated educators in Kentucky and Oklahoma are demanding change.

As negotiations continue between lawmakers and educators, some have questioned whether the latest protests represent the start of a national trend.

AASA’s recently released national survey of school superintendents revealed that nearly 75 percent of school leaders nationwide believe local schools are “inadequately funded.” Despite strong economic indicators, many school leader say their schools have been flat funded since the height of the Great Recession.

New legislation not enough for Oklahoma teachers

The teacher walkouts that began Monday came as no surprise to those following the months-long education battle in Oklahoma.

According to NBC News, Oklahoma legislators passed a $6,100 per teacher pay raise last week in an attempt to head off an anticipated labor strike.

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But activists say the new school funding model doesn’t go far enough.

As Alicia Priest, president of the Oklahoma Education Association, tells NBC:

“We’re going to say that our Legislature started the process and they have a moral obligation to invest in our children and our children’s future. That obligation has not been met yet. Funding for our students is an issue in every schoolhouse in the state of Oklahoma.”

During rallies this week, Oklahoma teachers called for a $10,000-per-teacher pay raise, along with an additional $75 million for general education funding, including updated supplies and books.

According to NBC, Oklahoma consistently ranks toward the bottom when it comes to school revenue per student ($3,000 below the national average) and average teacher salary (currently ranked 49th in the country).

Kentucky teachers protest pension changes

Oklahoma isn’t the only state in the throes of protest. Kentucky teachers took time out of their spring breaks to rally at the state capitol in opposition to legislation passed last week that would alter teacher pension plans.

According to Education Week, the rallies this week come on the heels of a temporary shutdown of dozens of districts across throughout the state, the result of teachers collectively calling in sick.  

The newly passed legislation would place new teachers into a retirement plan that is a combination of a 401(k)-style plan and a traditional pension plan. The bill also removes new teachers from something called an “inviolable contract” that protects employees from future changes to their benefit plans.

In the wake of Monday’s protests, lawmakers showed signs that they were willing to listen. According to the Lexington Herald Leader, lawmakers considered a budget plan that would increase taxes on certain services to boost education funding. , lawmakers considered a budget plan that would increase taxes on certain services to boost education funding.

Still, educators in Kentucky say there’s more work to be done to fully support the state’s teacher workforce. Some of that work will begin when the Kentucky Education Association Delegate Assembly kicks off later this week.

As KEA president Stephanie Winkler tells the Herald Leader:

I think the legislature continued to get the message that we’re not going away. We’re going to keep a watchful eye on the legislature, and we’re going to hold them accountable for doing good work for the people and children of the commonwealth.”

With frustration over inadequate school funding mounting and more teachers willing to make their voices heard, will protests be limited to West Virginia, Kentucky, and Oklahoma? Or, is this just the start of a broader movement of America’s K-12 educators?

Time will tell.

In the meantime, it’s up to districts to actively listen to their staff and faculty members and include them in key conversations.

Are you having a hard time recruiting and retaining high-quality teachers in your schools? Is pay a factor? What other issues factor into the challenge? Tell us in the comments.