The next red state to join the protest movement could be Arizona, where there is an open Senate seat and where thousands of teachers gathered in Phoenix this past week to demand a 20 percent pay raise and more money for schools.
Thousands of teachers in Oklahoma and Kentucky walked off the job Monday morning, shutting down school districts as they protested cuts in pay, benefits and school funding in a movement that has spread rapidly since igniting in West Virginia earlier this year.
In Oklahoma City, thousands of protesting teachers ringed the Capitol, chanting, “No funding, no future!” Katrina Ruff, a local teacher, carried a sign that read, “Thanks to West Virginia.”
“They gave us the guts to stand up for ourselves,” she said.
The wave of strikes in Republican-dominated states, mainly organized by ordinary teachers on Facebook, has caught lawmakers and sometimes the teachers’ own labor unions flat-footed. And the strikes are occurring in states and districts with important midterm races in November, suggesting that thousands of teachers, with their pent-up rage over years of pay freezes and budget cuts, are set to become a powerful political force this fall.
The next red state to join the protest movement could be Arizona, where there is an open Senate seat and where thousands of teachers gathered in Phoenix last week to demand a 20 percent pay raise and more funding for schools.
The growing fervor suggests that labor activism has taken on a new, grass-roots form.
“Our unions have been weakened so much that a lot of teachers don’t have faith” in them, said Noah Karvelis, an elementary-school music teacher in Tolleson, Arizona, outside Phoenix, and leader of the movement calling itself #RedforEd, after the red T-shirts protesting teachers are wearing across the country.
Karvelis said that younger teachers have been primed for activism by their anger over the election of President Donald Trump, his appointment of Betsy DeVos as education secretary and even their own students’ participation in anti-gun protests after the fatal school shooting in Parkland, Florida.
“Teachers for a long time have had a martyr mentality,” Karvelis said. “This is new.”
Striking West Virginia teachers declared victory last month after winning a 5 percent raise, but Oklahoma educators are holding out for more.
This past week, the Legislature in Oklahoma City voted to provide teachers with an average raise of $6,000 per year, or roughly a 16 percent raise, depending on experience. Gov. Mary Fallin, a Republican, signed the package into law.
Teachers said it was not enough. They have asked for a $10,000 raise, as well as additional money for schools and raises for support staff such as bus drivers and custodians.
About 200 of the state’s 500 school districts shut down Monday as teachers walked out, defying calls from some parents and administrators for them to be grateful for what they already had received from the state.
To pay for the raise, politicians from both parties agreed to increase production taxes on oil and gas, the state’s most prized industry, and institute new taxes on tobacco and motor fuel. It was the first new revenue bill to become law in Oklahoma in 28 years, bucking decades of tax-cut orthodoxy.
In Kentucky, teachers earn an average salary of $52,000, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, compared with $45,000 in Oklahoma. But teachers there, thousands of whom are picketing the capitol during their spring break, are protesting a pension-reform bill that abruptly passed the state House and Senate this past week. If Gov. Matt Bevin signs it into law, it will phase out defined-benefit pensions for teachers and replace them with hybrid retirement plans that combine features of a traditional pension with features of the 401(k) accounts used in the private sector. Teachers in the state are not eligible for Social Security benefits.
Andrew Beaver, 32, a middle-school math teacher in Louisville, Kentucky, said he was open to changes in teacher-retirement programs, such as potentially asking teachers to work to an older age before drawing down benefits; now, some Kentucky teachers are eligible for retirement around age 50. But he said he and his colleagues, many of whom have called in sick to protest the bill, were angry about not having a seat at the negotiation table with Bevin, a Republican, and the Republican majority in the Legislature.
“What I’m seeing in Louisville is teachers are a lot more politically engaged than they were in 2015 or 2016,” he said. “It really is a wildfire.”
In Arizona, where the average teacher salary is $47,000, teachers are agitating for more generous pay and more money for schools after watching the state slash funds to public education for years.
“We’re going to continue to escalate our actions,” Karvelis said. “Whether that ultimately ends in a strike? That’s certainly a possibility. We just want to win.”
With Republican legislators and governors bearing the brunt of the protesters’ fury, the Democratic Party is trying to capitalize on the moment. The Democratic National Committee plans to register voters at teacher rallies, and hopes to harness the movement’s populism.
The teacher walkouts are “a real rejection of the Republican agenda that doesn’t favor working-class people,” said Sabrina Singh, the committee’s deputy communications director. “Republicans aren’t on the side of teachers. The Democrats are.”
That type of rhetoric is a sea change from the Obama years, when many Democrats angered teachers by talking less about core issues of schools funding than about expanding the number of charter schools, or using student test scores to evaluate teachers and remove ineffective ones from the classroom.
“School reformers kind of overshot the mark, and we’re now in a pendulum swing where teachers increasingly look like good guys,” said Frederick Hess, director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative-leaning think tank.
Republicans, too, he said, should consider pitching themselves as teacher-friendly candidates, perhaps by tying teacher pay raises to efforts to expand school choice through private-school vouchers or charter schools.
Lily Eskelsen García, president of the National Education Association, the nation’s largest teachers union, called the movement an “education spring.”