Ever since the strike started April 2, tens of thousands of teachers have packed state legislature in Oklahoma City each working day in protest of an education system in which funding per student has dropped 8.2 percent between 2008 and 2018, according to the nonpartisan Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
"We need lawmakers to make a long-term investment in our children's future," said the Oklahoma Education Association, Oklahoma's largest teachers union, on Monday, Reuters reported.
On Friday, the state Senate sent Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin two bills that aim to generate more money annually for use in teachers' classrooms. The first bill requires third-party retailers selling through Amazon and other websites to collect sales tax from shoppers and is expected to generate about $20 million annually in education funding. The second bill, a "ball and dice" tax for gambling, is not expected to increase this year's education funding, but could generate income in the future. The measure authorizes casinos to provide ball and dice games like roulette, despite concerns that such games could lead to gambling addictions.
In addition, Fallin recently approved a bill that would increase each educator's salary by $6,100. However, according to educators, that is not enough. Teachers are demanding a $10,000 raise and a $5,000 raise for support staff, teachers having been given only a $5,000 raise, with $8,000 for veteran teachers but nothing for support staff, in a recently passed bill. Before that, Oklahoma teachers had not received a raise in a decade.
The Senate will meet April 9 to discuss a bill to remove tax exemption on capital gains. If the bill is enacted, about $120 million could be generated annually, according to the Oklahoma Education Association. In addition, educators are pressing for a hotel tax that would generate around $50 million annually. The $5-per-night lodging tax for hotels and motels has been previously opposed by the hospitality industry.
"We hope capital gains goes back to the table and that is what we are really waiting for," said Barbara Bayless, a teacher from Choctaw, Governing.com reported.
On Monday, the Oklahoma Department of Education also agreed to extend the testing period for students sitting for standardized exams. Although the testing period began April 2, tens of thousands of students have been out of schools due to the strikes.
On Monday, state superintendent Joy Hofmeister also expressed her hope that extension of the testing period would not result in loss of education funding from the federal government, which requires that 95 percent of students take standardized exams, USA Today reported.
Last week, schools in multiple counties in Kentucky also closed as teachers went on strike in the state capital, Frankfort, to protest a bill passed two weeks ago that changed the way teachers are allowed to use sick days and save for retirement.
Senate Bill 151 bars current employees from contributing sick days to their retirement funds after December 31, 2018, and requires new teachers hired after January 1, 2019, to participate in a hybrid cash-balance retirement plan. Such cash-balance plans are considered less favorable than traditional pensions because they do not include a guaranteed 4 percent annual return for educators. Kentucky teachers are already ineligible for social security benefits and will now have a limited number of sick days that can go toward their retirement. Current teachers will still receive the pension benefits that existed when they were hired, and no changes will be made to teachers' annual cost of living adjustments.
The protests in Oklahoma come about a month after West Virginia teachers won a huge victory, forcing their state's House of Delegates and Senate to unanimously approve a bill awarding all state employees, including teachers and school staff, a 5 percent pay increase. West Virginia educators, also among the country's lowest-paid, had staged a nine-day classroom walkout that shut down every school district in the state.