Oklahoma City (AFP) – Students joined teachers in Oklahoma City Wednesday for a third day of protests demanding that state lawmakers increase funding for public schools after years of budget cuts.
“We the students of Oklahoma are with you for as long as this strike takes,” student Cameron Olbert told a rally outside the state capitol, epicenter of a demonstration that has attracted tens of thousands of people.
Protesters overwhelmed offices of their state representatives and on Tuesday jeered when the state legislature refused to consider additional school funding.
“I have 35 students per class for 28 seats in my classroom,” Richard Covett, 47, told AFP, “and 28 textbooks for a total of 120 students.”
Oklahoma, where the oil and gas industry dominates, is among a handful of states that cut its education budget deeply as public coffers were drained by tax cuts and the 2008 economic downturn.
Even though the economy has improved, the education cuts have not been restored in full, prompting struggling teachers to fight back.
Their protest has brought to light stories of teachers taking multiple jobs to make ends meet, and neglect and disrepair in classrooms.
“In many Oklahoma schools, books are falling apart, desks are cutting the students who sit in them, buildings are not heated or air conditioned, and school supplies are rationed,” 16-year-old Grace Fox said at the student rally.
The teachers’ union said many of its members were prepared to protest through the week, if not beyond — shuttering many schools in the state for an indefinite period.
– ‘Hashtag-wielding teenagers’ –
The students, some of whom are near voting age, threatened to punish unresponsive politicians in the November mid-terms, raising the stakes for Republicans in what would normally be one of their strongholds.
“From this day onwards, legislators will fear us hashtag-wielding teenagers more than they do oil and gas companies,” high school senior Ravi Patel told the rally.
Oklahoma lawmakers recently agreed to a rare tax increase to bump teachers’ pay by an average of $6,100 a year. But, teachers have asked for $10,000 and more money for classrooms.
Governor Mary Fallin said the state budget is stretched for multiple priorities, and pointed to the teacher pay hike as an “historic first step.”
“I hope (the protest) will end this week, so that the teachers get back to classrooms,” Fallin told local TV station KFOR.
A day earlier on CBS, she had criticized teachers’ demands as “kind of like having a teenage kid that wants a better car.”
That comment was the subject of criticism Wednesday from some teachers and students.
“We’re in the capitol and we’re taking names. And when the students of Oklahoma go to vote in a couple of short years, we’re going to remember yours,” Olbert warned lawmakers.