West Virginia teacher strike inspires Oklahoma, Arizona

A teacher rebellion is spreading in red states as teachers in Oklahoma and Arizona demand wage increases. 'West Virginia woke us up,' says the Arizona Educators Association president. 

Sue Ogrocki/AP
Teacher Adrien Gates pickets with other educators in Norman, Okla., on March 27. Oklahoma teachers demanding higher wages resulted in the GOP-led government passing taxes on March 29 to increase teacher pay and school funding.

A teacher rebellion that started in the hills of West Virginia spread like a prairie fire to Oklahoma this week and now threatens to reach the desert in Arizona.

In the deep red state of Oklahoma, the Republican-led Legislature approved money for teacher raises and more school funding, even hiking taxes on the vaunted oil and gas industry to do it. Gov. Mary Fallin rushed to sign the measures into law Thursday.

Oklahoma teachers were inspired by West Virginia, another red state where a nine-day strike led to 5 percent teacher raises. Oklahoma teachers haven't had a raise in a decade of Republican control and they won raises of between 15 and 18 percent. Now, teachers in Arizona thronged their GOP-run Capitol this week, demanding a 20 percent teacher pay hike.

"West Virginia woke us up," Arizona Educators Association President Joe Thomas told a cheering crowd at a protest this week in Phoenix.

In Oklahoma, the tax hikes on cigarettes, fuel, and oil and gas production will be enough for raises averaging about $6,100 annually, as well as funding boosts for schools, support personnel, and state workers.

Oklahoma ranks 47th in the nation in public school revenue per student, nearly $3,000 below the national average, while its average teacher salary of $45,276 ranks 49th, according to the most recent statistics from the National Education Association (NEA).

"A lot of teachers are just tired of the promises," said Alberto Morejon, a junior high history teacher from Stillwater, Okla., who launched a teacher walkout page on Facebook that quickly reached more than 70,000 followers.

Many GOP-led states are feeling the pushback after years of tax cuts that have slashed funding for core government services such as public schools, said Lily García, president of the NEA, the 3-million member teachers's union. 

"It has been an unmitigated disaster, and it's now coming home to roost on all those folks who blindly cut taxes, not caring how that was going to impact communities," said Ms. García.

The reversal on tax cuts in Oklahoma was particularly stunning, because lawmakers there included a hike on the normally sacrosanct energy industry, increasing the production tax on oil and natural gas from 2 percent to 5 percent. In the Legislature, where lawmakers needed a three-fourth's majority in both bodies to pass a new tax, the House voted even as billionaire oil baron Harold Hamm, the chairman and CEO of Continental Resources, glared at them from the gallery.

Governor Fallin, who in 2014 signed into law tax cuts on both income and energy production, signed the measures quickly with a hope of averting statewide school closures. Earlier, she praised bipartisan support of the package and said she hopes the teacher walkouts scheduled to start on Monday will instead become a one-day rally for education.

"That'll be up to the teachers, but I hope that they can come up here, say 'thank you' on Monday and go back to the classrooms," Fallin said.

In both Arizona and Oklahoma, teachers are mulling whether the current offer from the Legislature is enough to avert a work stoppage. The union in Oklahoma was demanding $75 million in new funding for education, and is expected to get $50 million under the plan.

While some Oklahoma school administrators and board members are giddy over the infusion of new cash, many rank-and-file teachers are demanding that all of their needs are met before they agree to stop a walkout.

"They need to fund our schools better, and until that happens, we're going to walk out," said Adrien Gates, an elementary school teacher in Norman, Okla. "We need to take this all the way. Otherwise we're settling."

This article was reported by the Associated Press.

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