Despite a 16% pay hike signed into law Thursday, many Oklahoma teachers walked off the job Monday, forcing the closure of about 200 schools statewide.
The strike followed a teacher walkout in Kentucky Friday that forced closure of schools in more than 20 counties. The strike followed legislative changes in teacher pensions. Teachers in Arizona are also considering a walkout modeled on an earlier strike in West Virginia that brought a 5% salary hike.
In Oklahoma, teachers said the issue is larger than teacher pay.
“The legislation providing more funding for higher teacher salaries and tax increases is a great beginning, but it’s not the end,” said Ed Allen, president of the Oklahoma City American Federation of Teachers, in a rally at the state Capitol. “Our teachers raised their voices and the Legislature did the right thing, and now we need assurances that there will be additional funding to invest in our schools.”
The state's three largest school districts, in Oklahoma City, Tulsa and Edmond, were closed Monday, according to The Associated Press. Oklahoma City Schools have already cancelled classes for Tuesday.
Under pressure from the threat of a teacher walkout, Fallin signed legislation providing teachers average pay raises of $6,100 per year or 16%.
The package of bills placed a $17,000 cap on deductions on adjusted gross income, increased taxes on cigarettes by $1 per pack, raised the fuel tax by 3 cents per gallon on gasoline and 6 cents on diesel, and raised the gross production tax on oil and gas to 5% from the previous 2% on all wells.
“It is the largest teacher pay raise in the history of the state,” Fallin said in a signing statement. “By signing these measures, Oklahoma will move to second-highest in the region, up from the lowest, in average teacher pay.”
The battle over teacher pay and school funding comes as Moody’s Investors Service considers whether to lower the state’s Aa2 credit rating after years of budget shortfalls and one-time gimmicks to balance spending and revenue.
Last July, Fitch Ratings downgraded Oklahoma’s general obligation bonds to AA from AA-plus, citing a decrease in “financial resilience” over the last several years amid falling energy prices. Since then, oil prices have risen gradually as the U.S. economy gains strength.
The $400 million in new funding for teacher pay approved by the Oklahoma Legislature last week was about half the amount sought by the Oklahoma Education Association. The $6,100 average pay hike was about 40% less than teachers sought. Moreover, teachers said the pay increase did nothing for underfunded schools.
“At its core, this is about teachers’ and school support workers’ heartbreaking teaching and learning conditions,” Allen said. “Funding public education adequately is a fight that we must win because it’s the right thing for our kids, for our economy and for America.”
The strike, modeled on one earlier this year in West Virginia, could go on through the rest of the week, according to the teachers unions.
West Virginia’s nine-day strike brought a 5% raise for teachers. Kentucky teachers also rallied at their state capitol Monday.
Teachers in Arizona are also considering a strike for a 20% salary increase.