Melissa Knight, who teaches art at Ardmore, Oklahoma, middle school, holds a sign as teachers rally against low school funding at the state Capitol in Oklahoma City, April 2, 2018.
Melissa Knight, who teaches art at Ardmore, Oklahoma, middle school, holds a sign as teachers rally against low school funding at the state Capitol in Oklahoma City, April 2, 2018.

Tens of thousands of teachers in two U.S. states have not gone to work in protest of low wages and insufficient education funding.

More than 30,000 educators in the Midwest states of Oklahoma and Kentucky are on strike. Oklahoma’s largest teachers' union has called for a $10,000 pay raise for educators over the next three years. It is also seeking an increase of $75 million in state education funding.

Union officials said the strike led to classes being cancelled for about 500,000 of Oklahoma’s 700,000 public school students.

Thousands of striking teachers traveled to the state capital, Oklahoma City, to join a mass demonstration. The president of the Oklahoma Education Association, Alicia Priest, called on all teachers to join the protest to pressure lawmakers to act.

Priest says teachers and students have dealt with 11 years of funding cuts that have prevented upgrades of school equipment. Meanwhile, class sizes have grown.

“We will not continue to be ignored,” Priest said in a message posted on Facebook. “Educators will continue to walk until we get a deal that our students deserve,” she said.

Oklahoma came in at 47th among U.S. states in money spent per student in 2016, the National Education Association estimated. The association also reported the state came in near the bottom in pay, with the average teacher in Oklahoma earning about $45,000 a year.

The Republican-controlled legislature in Oklahoma has not raised taxes in recent years. The Republican governor signed legislation last week to raise teacher salaries 15 percent to 18 percent. Many educators said the amount was too low. 

“If I didn’t have a second job, I’d be on food stamps,” Rae Lovelace, a third-grade teacher and single mother in northwest Oklahoma, told Associated Press. Food stamps are government assistance for food shopping. Lovelace is among many teachers who work a second job to earn extra money. She says she works an additional 30 to 40 hours a week teaching internet courses for another school.

Protests in Kentucky

In Kentucky, thousands of teachers demonstrated in the capital, Frankfort. Some schools were closed for spring vacation. Others cancelled classes so teachers could join the protests. On Friday, hundreds of teachers called in sick to protest last-minute changes to their retirement system.

A pension bill last week passed by Republican lawmakers in Kentucky continued pension benefits for most state workers, but reduced them for new teachers. Lawmakers said it was necessary to make up for under-funding the state’s teacher retirement system. Teacher unions condemned the new measure and promised large protests to oppose it.

Language arts teacher Lesley Buckner said the goal of the protests was to send a clear message to Kentucky lawmakers. “If we continue to stay united, they cannot turn away from us, they cannot turn their backs on us.”

More to come?

The latest demonstrations followed protests and strikes in West Virginia in February. Teachers statewide walked off their jobs for more than a week. The educators won their demand for a 5 percent increase in pay.

In Arizona, teachers held protests last week demanding more education funding. Teachers there are also demanding a 20 percent pay increase and are considering a strike to press their demands. Many Arizona teachers wore red clothes to school on Monday to express support for teachers in Oklahoma and Kentucky.

Associated Press, Reuters and Agence France-Presse contributed to this report.