Oklahoma teachers chalk cars to spread message about needed funding

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Oklahoma closed schools on Monday and Tuesday as teachers continued to protest for better wages.

Monday, teachers across the state gathered at the Oklahoma State Capitol to put pressure on state legislatures to increase education funding.

This wave of teacher-led actions around the country was kicked off when teachers in West Virginia emerged victorious from a almost two-week strike earlier this month.

On Friday, more than two dozen school districts closed after a rush of teachers called in sick following the passage of the pension bill.

While West Virginia's teachers strike proved to be successful forcing lawmakers to pass a bill that gave teachers and other state employees a 5 percent pay raise, Oklahoma teachers are confident they can do the same.

Teachers have strongly rejected Republican Gov. Mary Fallin's claims that House Bill 1010xx, the funding bill she signed last week, was "historic". The Oklahoma Education Association, which is the state's largest teacher's union, said it would evaluate each evening this week whether the rally would continue the next day.

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Amid a chorus of chants from teachers, Kentucky lawmakers considered a new state budget that includes higher spending for public education.

"This legislation will provide an average teacher pay raise of $6,000 to our teachers".

It has cost Oklahoma about $450 million but only generated $9 million in benefit to the state, Rader said.

Overall, funding for public education has started to rebound in recent years, as real estate prices went back up.

"I've never been left out in the cold", by the union, says Ashley Robertson, a fouth-grade teacher and OEA member in Blanchard, Okla. But Oklahoma also passed drastic tax breaks for oil and gas companies, despite the fact that Oklahoma City had already attracted plenty of corporate investment to become a fracking boomtown in the early 2000s.

Second, the diminished power of the unions has led to the rise of grassroots organization via social media platforms. In those groups, teachers grumbled about low pay and posted photos of the sometimes shoddy classroom conditions for their students.

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Ed Allen, the leader of the Oklahoma City AFT, tells NPR he's never seen anything like this negotiation process in his 26 years with the union.

As in West Virginia, Oklahoma is suffering from a teacher shortage that has reached crisis levels - with over 500 vacancies as of August 1 and almost 500 more positions eliminated. Oklahoma teachers' salaries rank forty-ninth in the United States, Vox reported, without a raise in 10 years. The shortage is acutely felt in places like Edmond Public Schools, which now has more than two dozen positions open in its middle and high schools. One state plan required teachers to download an app on their phones, called Go365, that would track their steps during the day to make sure they would get enough exercise, or else they faced a $500 penalty. Like in West Virginia, the teacher shortage means there are no replacements for striking teachers. Schools not on spring break closed.

The GOP-held state legislature passed a pay raise for teachers in a revenue package last week, but teachers said the proposed plan was not enough. And there are rumblings of similar action in other states as well, including North Carolina.

In addition to the raises, lawmakers have already passed next year's education budget, which increased education spending to $2.9 billion - a almost 20 percent increase from current levels.

Erin McHenry-Sober is an assistant professor of higher education at West Virginia University.

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