Oklahoma City (AFP) – First-grade teacher Kelly Lamerton is passionate about education, but working four jobs just to survive has left her close to the breaking point.
“Some days I get home at 10:00 pm and I can’t get a full night of rest,” said the 28-year-old, who in addition to teaching youngsters how to read supervises them on the school bus, sells snacks at sports games and works at a church daycare service.
She’s now one of thousands of determined educators, supported by students and parents, demonstrating in front of the legislature in Oklahoma’s capital demanding change.
The teachers of this state in the heart of America, where oil is a predominant industry, are among the lowest paid in the country.
Their salaries start at $31,000 per year (25,000 euros) before taxes. To survive, many have taken on two, three, four, or five odd jobs — working nights and weekends, or during their summer holidays.
As the protest stretched into its third day, hundreds of schools remain closed and anger was boiling over.
“Enough is enough,” said Larry Cagle, an English teacher who is also one of the movement’s leaders.
“We have no intention of returning to school. We’re prepared to wind up until the summer.”
– $10,000 raise –
“We haven’t had a raise in a decade, and we’ve endured cuts every single year for the past 10 years,” added Cagle.
The result: ever-fuller classes, dilapidated school buildings, and often inexperienced teachers.
Oklahoma lawmakers last week approved a pay increase of $6,000 per year on average for each teacher, a concession teachers consider insufficient.
Governor Mary Fallin, in an interview with CBS, called the teachers “teenagers who want a new car.”
The demonstrators say they are asking for a $10,000 raise to stop the exodus of teachers to neighboring states, where they can earn an average of $15,000 more per year for the same level of experience.
And, most importantly, teachers say they want a $200 million budget increase to renovate and equip schools that have been left to wither.
Twenty-nine-year-old Klarissa Brock says that when she returned from vacation this year, her classroom was flooded due to burst pipes that had frozen during Oklahoma’s brutal winter. The school administration had turned off the heat to save money. All of her classroom equipment was ruined.
Another teacher describes classes of 40 students, some of whom have to sit on the floor, because they lack enough desks and chairs.
Mark Lianney, who has three decades of teaching experience, teaches 150 students but only has 32 social science textbooks, which are falling apart from years of use.
The 57-year-old son of a teacher — tall and imposing, and carrying a sign saying: “This teacher should have been a cowboy” — tells AFP that he personally pays for photocopies to distribute to students.
Behind him, a DJ is spinning pop music to energize demonstrators, and a stage is set for speeches later in the day.
– ‘The pendulum has swung too far’ –
“Funding schools shouldn’t be historical. It should be normal,” says a sign held by Becky Horton, who is sitting in a folding chair, with blankets to cope with the bitter cold.
The 44-year-old music teacher buys sheet music herself, and funds all activities, outings and instruments through fundraisers that rely on parents or charities.
The exasperation is overtaking Oklahoma, and similar teacher strikes have taken place in Kentucky, Arizona, and other US states were teachers are underpaid.
The protesters in Oklahoma were galvanized by a strike in West Virginia, which resulted in a five percent wage increase. The success of protest movements such as #MeToo and the women’s marches may have also emboldened demonstrators.
“I believe we have some support (from the community),” said Cagle.
A testament to that support were the many honking horns greeting a group of 15 protesters — teachers, high school students and parents — installed at an intersection in Mustang, a suburb of Oklahoma City.
“It’s a national problem. Many states have decided to try to save money by fear of (wasteful) government spending, but the pendulum has swung too far,” says Cagle, who repairs fences to supplement his teacher’s salary.
“West Virginia, Arizona, Kentucky, and Oklahoma are conservative states. We’re states with significant support for Donald Trump. Yet, people don’t want to see the school system destroyed.”