Los Angeles teachers strike, shutting classes in second-largest U.S. system

The downtown skyline is pictured in Los Angeles, California, U.S., February 22, 2018. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – More than 30,000 Los Angeles teachers demanding higher pay and smaller class sizes walked off the job in the second-largest U.S. school system on Monday, union officials said, leaving 640,000 students in limbo.

Students arriving for classes at some 900 campuses in the Los Angeles County School District were met by teachers carrying picket signs and rallying in the rain for higher salaries, increased staff and smaller classes, the city’s first teachers’ strike in three decades.

The action is the latest in a wave of teachers’ strikes across the United States, following large-scale actions that began in West Virginia and spread to Kentucky, Oklahoma and Arizona.

While those cases represented unions battling Republican-dominated state legislatures that had focused on cutting spending, the Los Angeles strike is the largest targeting a Democratic-controlled government. Los Angeles County officials contend the strikers’ demands are unaffordable.

Videos posted on Twitter by the United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA), showed teachers and others marching with picket signs outside of a local public school chanting.

“The district would like us to believe that class sizes don’t matter,” said Mabel Wong, a teacher at John Marshall High School, during a news conference on Monday.

The union wants a 6.5 percent pay raise, more librarians, counselors and nurses on campuses, smaller class sizes and less testing, as well as a moratorium on new charter schools.

Talks broke down on Friday, when union negotiators said they were “insulted” by the latest offer of a 6 percent salary increase from district officials.

Some teachers in Denver also walked out on Monday amid salary negotiations, according to a video posted on the Denver Classroom Teachers Association’s Twitter page.

Officials from the Los Angeles County School District did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Monday.

Los Angeles County School Superintendent Austin Beutner said Friday’s offer to teachers was beefed up after newly installed California Governor Gavin Newsom increased education spending in his proposed budget for the coming fiscal year.

County officials have said UTLA’s demands would bankrupt the district.

“Our commitment to our families is to make sure all of the money we have is being spent in schools. We are doing that,” Beutner said in a statement on Friday. “We hope UTLA leadership will reconsider its demands, which it knows Los Angeles Unified cannot meet.”

Nearly a year ago, West Virginia teachers picketed for more than a week, pressing lawmakers for higher salaries in a state with some of the lowest-paid teachers in the country. State officials eventually approved a 5 percent pay raise for all state workers.

In April 2018, teachers in Oklahoma ended a nearly two-week strike that affected about 500,000 schools and 700,000 students after securing pay raises and increased education funding from Republican leaders. In Kentucky and Arizona, teachers saw a boost in funding and wages last year after walkouts.

(Reporting by Dan Whitcomb in Los Angeles, additional reporting by Gina Cherelus in New York and Rich McKay in Atlanta; Writing by Scott Malone; Editing by Bill Berkrot and Grant McCool)

Oklahoma Senate takes up tax hike to halt week-long teachers’ strike

FILE PHOTO - Teachers pack the state Capitol rotunda to capacity, on the second day of a teacher walkout, to demand higher pay and more funding for education, in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, U.S., April 3, 2018. REUTERS/Nick Oxford

By Lenzy Krehbiel-Burton

OKLAHOMA CITY (Reuters) – The Oklahoma Senate is set to debate a tax hike package on Friday to raise education funds in the hope of halting a week-long strike by its public school teachers, who are some of the lowest-paid educators in the country.

The strike that started on Monday has affected more than half a million students. It comes after a successful West Virginia strike last month ended with a pay raise and as teachers in other states angry over stagnating wages are considering walk-outs.

The Oklahoma package includes a $20 million internet sales approved by the House on Wednesday, a hotel tax hike expected to generate about another $50 million and a gambling measure that could bring in about another $22 million.

Tens of thousands of teachers have come to the state capitol this week seeking fresh spending for an education system that has seen inflation-adjusted general funding per student drop by 28.2 percent between 2008 and 2018, the biggest reduction of any state, according to the nonpartisan Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

Last week, lawmakers approved the state’s first major tax increase in a quarter century, a $400 million revenue package that would have raised teacher pay by an average of about $6,000.

That was not enough for the teachers, seeking $10,000 over three years. Even with the pay raise already approved by lawmakers, they would still receive lower mean salaries than teachers in every neighboring state, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data showed.

Republican-dominated Oklahoma has the lowest median pay among states for both elementary and secondary school teachers, according to 2017 data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The minimum salary for a first year teacher was $31,600, state data showed.

Oklahoma has some of the lowest U.S. oil and gas production taxes and a major cause for the budget strain comes from tax breaks the state has granted to its energy industry, which were worth $470 million in fiscal year 2015 alone.

When energy prices plunged a few years ago and tax revenue dropped, Oklahoma lawmakers made deeper cuts to education funding, which was already on the decline.

As a consequence of low pay at home and better opportunities across state lines, Oklahoma is grappling with a teacher shortage that has forced some school districts to cut curricula, and go to a four-day school week.

(Reporting by Lenzy Krehbiel-Burton in Oklahoma City and Jon Herskovitz in Austin, Texas; Writing by Jon Herskovitz; Editing by Michael Perry)

U.S. teachers face tough choice: Love of the job or living wage

Teachers rally outside the state Capitol for the second day of a teacher walkout to demand higher pay and more funding for education in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, U.S., April 3, 2018. REUTERS/Nick Oxford

By Bernie Woodall and Barbara Goldberg

(Reuters) – John-David Bowman, Arizona’s 2015 “Teacher of the Year,” considers himself lucky: he can do the job he loves without worrying about supporting his family because he relies on his wife’s salary.

Things are harder for third-year Oklahoma teacher Jenny Vargas. The divorced mother of a 6-year-old girl is leaving her home state to take a job in Coffeyville, Kansas, where she can earn $8,000 a year more and be able to make ends meet.

Stories like theirs have sparked a wave of strikes and threats of more across the country over the past month as teachers in West Virginia, Oklahoma and Kentucky have walked off the job to protest long-stagnant teacher pay and school budgets.

Teachers in Arizona have threatened similar action if lawmakers do not meet their demands for more spending on schools.

Vargas, who teaches second grade in a Tulsa school, joined thousands of Oklahoma teachers who crammed into the state Capitol in Oklahoma City this week and others held sympathy rallies around the state. They demanded lawmakers pass a tax package that would raise another $200 million for the state school budget to provide up-to-date books and other classroom materials. The protests continued on Wednesday.

“It was never my intention to leave the state of Oklahoma,” Vargas said in a phone interview. Despite her love for her students, she laments that she made more per year working at Walmart as a student than she does teaching, and said she is moving to give her daughter a better life.

“Most days I have to ask myself, ‘Today am I going to be a good mom or am I going to be a good teacher?'” Vargas said. “It’s really hard to do both.”

The walk-outs have shone a light on states where largely Republican-controlled legislatures have slashed funding for public schools.

Oklahoma ranked 47th in spending per student, according to National Education Association data, and its average salary for a high school teacher is $42,460, according to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) data.

Bowman, who teaches social studies, is better off, earning slightly over $50,000 a year at his Mesa, Arizona, high school, having boosted his pay over the years with extracurricular assignments including coaching baseball. That puts him above the $48,020 mean for the state, but still below the $58,030 national median, according to the BLS.

But over his 11 years of teaching, pay raises have not kept pace with the cost of living in the fast-growing Phoenix area, Bowman said. Many of his colleagues wait tables, mow lawns or drive for ride-share services to make ends meet, he added.

“I decided to teach because I felt it would be a job I could do for a couple of years and I could give back to my community,” Bowman said.¬†“But I fell in love with the profession and here I am eleven years later.”

He’s been able to stay because his wife, a designer, earns considerably more.

As Bowman and Vargas struggle financially, education union leaders warn that the cuts in school spending across the country are scaring away future teachers.

“We are at a crisis now where if you go to the colleges of education, every single one of them will tell you they are seeing a drop in the number of applicants,” said¬†Lily Eskelsen Garcia, president of the National Education Association union.

Realizing that low wages will make it difficult for teachers to pay for the advanced degrees that the field requires, she added, “parents are telling their sons and daughters, ‘Don’t become a teacher.'”

(Reporting by Bernie Woodall in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, Barbara Goldberg in New York; Writing by Scott Malone; Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe)

Oklahoma, Kentucky teachers walk off job over pay, shut schools

By Lenzy Krehbiel-Burton

OKLAHOMA CITY (Reuters) – Oklahoma teachers walked off the job on Monday, closing schools statewide, as they became the latest U.S. educators to demand pay raises and more funding for a school system reeling from a decade of budget cuts.

The strike by some of the lowest-paid educators in the nation came the same day that Kentucky teachers dressed in red T-shirts flooded that state’s capital demanding pension security, following a similar successful wage-strike about a month ago by teachers in West Virginia.

Teachers say years of budget austerity in many states have led to the stagnation of already poor salaries.

In Oklahoma City, a band of teachers played “We’re Not Gonna Take It,” as buses of educators from across the state arrived at the Capitol. Protesters carried signs reading: “How can you put students first if you put teachers last?” ahead of a rally expected to draw thousands.

“I am disgusted with the cuts, and deeper and deeper cuts,” said Betty Gerber, a retired teacher from Broken Arrow, Oklahoma.

Oklahoma’s Republican-controlled legislature last week approved the state’s first major tax increase in a quarter century to help fund pay raises for teachers, hoping to avert a strike with a $450 million revenue package.

The funding would raise by $5,000 the pay of teachers beginning their career, and provide a raise of nearly $8,000 for those with 25 years’ experience, lawmakers said.

The increase fell short of the demand from the largest teachers’ union in the state, the Oklahoma Education Association, for a $10,000 pay increase over three years for teachers and a $5,000 raise for support personnel.

According to National Education Association estimates for 2016, Oklahoma ranked 48th, followed by Mississippi at 49 and South Dakota at 50, in terms of average U.S. classroom teacher salary.

Oklahoma secondary school teachers had an annual mean wage of $42,460 as of May 2016, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The minimum salary for a first year teacher was $31,600, state data showed.

The mean wage for teachers in every neighboring state is higher, causing many experienced teachers to leave Oklahoma, where some budget-strained districts have been forced to implement four-day school weeks.

On a state level, the inflation-adjusted general funding per student in Oklahoma dropped by 28.2 percent between 2008 and 2018, the biggest cut of any state, according to the nonpartisan Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

(Reporting by Lenzy Krehbiel-Burton in Oklahoma City and Jon Herskovitz in Austin, Texas; Additional reporting by Bernie Woodall in Fort Lauderdale; Writing by Jon Herskovitz; Editing by Scott Malone and Susan Thomas)