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Teachers in Revolt: Meet the Educators in Kentucky & Oklahoma Walking Out over School Funding

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Image Credit: Courtesy Steph Montelongo

Schools across Oklahoma are closed today for a third day as teachers continue their strike demanding more funding for education and increased pay. Oklahoma’s public education budget has been slashed more than any other state since the start of the recession in 2008, and its teachers are among the lowest paid in the nation. Scores of teachers are planning to begin a 123-mile protest march today from Tulsa to Oklahoma City. Meanwhile, thousands of teachers continue to protest in Kentucky, demanding a reversal to a provision in a recently passed bill about sewage treatment that gutted their pension benefits. On Monday, every school in the state was closed either due to spring break or in anticipation of a massive rally in the capital of Frankfort, where teachers filled the rotunda of the Kentucky state Capitol, chanting “Fund our schools!” This year’s wave of teacher rebellions began in West Virginia, where teachers won a 5 percent pay raise after a historic strike. We speak to four guests: Oklahoma teacher Andrea Thomas, Kentucky state lawmaker Attica Scott, retired Kentucky teacher Mickey McCoy and labor journalist Mike Elk.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Schools across Oklahoma are closed today for a third day as teachers continue their strike demanding more funding for education and increased pay. Oklahoma’s public education budget has been slashed more than any other state since the start of the recession in 2008, and its teachers are among the lowest paid in the nation. Scores of teachers are planning to begin a 123-mile protest march today from Tulsa to Oklahoma City.

Meanwhile, thousands of teachers continue to protest in Kentucky, demanding a reversal to a provision in a recently passed bill about sewage treatment that gutted teacher pension benefits. On Monday, every school in the state was closed either due to spring break or anticipation of a massive rally in the capital of Frankfort, when teachers filled the rotunda of the Kentucky state Capitol, chanting “Fund our schools!” This is Kentucky Education Association President Stephanie Winkler.

STEPHANIE WINKLER: There will be no more bills like that after November. We have to fight for every single new teacher. You can tell me all you want, “It’s not going to hurt you.” If you hurt one of us, you hurt all of us!

AMY GOODMAN: This year’s wave of teacher rebellions began in West Virginia, where teachers won a 5 percent pay raise after an historic strike. The protests have also inspired teachers in other states, including Arizona, where union members are threatening to strike unless their demand for a 20 percent wage increase is met. The teacher protests in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Kentucky and Arizona have been described by some as a “red-state revolt.” In 2016, Donald Trump won all four states. Meanwhile, in higher education news, nontenured faculty at Loyola University Chicago are planning to go on strike today.

For more on teacher uprisings, we go to Oklahoma and Kentucky. We’re joined by four guests. In Oklahoma, Andrea Thomas, a 9th and 11th grade English teacher at Newcastle High School outside of Oklahoma City, has taught for 19 years, is now on strike. Mickey McCoy is a retired English teacher and school board member in eastern Kentucky, taught for 27 years. Also in Kentucky, we’re joined by Democratic state Representative Attica Scott, who serves on the House Education Committee. In 2016, she became the first African-American woman serve on Kentucky’s state Legislature in 20 years. And we’re joined by Mike Elk, senior labor reporter at Payday Report and a correspondent for The Guardian. Elk’s recent piece is headlined “'Arab spring for teachers': educators in Oklahoma join wave of strikes.”

Mike, let’s begin with you in Oklahoma. Just give us an overview of what’s taken place.

MIKE ELK: Well, Amy, after the successful West Virginia strike—a lot of teachers here had already been talking, prior to the West Virginia strike, about organizing some sort of walkout. But when they saw teachers in West Virginia win that 9-day strike, that historic strike, it gave them a lot of confidence to keep pushing. And so, what happened here is that over a hundred school districts throughout the state now are out on strike.

And in some of these school districts, the Democratic superintendents of the schools are actually quite supportive, because of how bad the funding cuts are. My colleague and I, Karina Moreno, the brilliant public administration professor at Long Island-Brooklyn, crunched the numbers. And Oklahoma has cut more from its state budget since 2009 than any other state in the country. It has one of the lowest tax rates on oil and natural gas. The tax rate is effective 3 percent tax rate on oil and natural gas production. In comparison, Texas, neighboring Texas, which pays its teachers a starting salary of $18,000 more, taxes oil and natural gas at an effective rate of 8 percent.

So what we’re seeing here is that teachers are demanding a lot more in terms of funding. Already the state has passed a $6,000 pay raise for teachers. But teachers are saying it’s about a lot more than a pay raise. It’s about funding classrooms. It’s about having textbooks. I’ve talked and interviewed so many teachers that are telling me that they can’t even get proper supplies or textbooks. They can’t assign homework, because they can’t risk losing a $200 textbook. And they tell me that their students know the state’s not investing in education. And this is at a time that Oklahoma is booming. You know, you go to downtown Oklahoma City or go to downtown Tulsa, and the place is booming with oil money. So it’s a question of taxation, and it’s a question of rolling it back. And we’re seeing teachers here make a very bold stand. And almost every teacher I talked to emphasizes that this is strike not about raises, but about making sure they get more money for the classroom.

And, you know, it looks like it will go on for at least a week or two. The superintendent in Tulsa, where I’m at, just announced that she would close schools for an entire week. And she’s appearing later today, the superintendent of Tulsa, at a rally to kick off a 123-mile march from Tulsa to Oklahoma City, that’s expected to take a week. So this strike here will go on for a while, and it looks like the strike in Kentucky will go on for some time, too. And it’s going to be incredible to see what kind of ripple effect this has.

AMY GOODMAN: So, let’s go to Andrea Thomas, Andrea Thomas who is in Oklahoma City. You’re a teacher. You’ve been a teacher for almost two decades, you and your husband, in the Oklahoma schools. Talk about why you’re striking and what you’re demanding.

ANDREA THOMAS: Yes. Well, the Legislature, you know, they have passed the $6,000 raise. And we can live with that. What we’re fighting for now is for the kids. Like, I’ve seen so many signs that have said, “We’re here for the kids. We’re here for the kids.” I’ve had students come and support us. It’s about funding for the classrooms. It’s about technology. You know, we’re lacking in technology at our school. It’s about being able to implement safety measures. We haven’t—you know, in our society today, we’d love to implement more safety measures, but it’s so hard to do. Our librarian, she—you know, we don’t have a library budget. If she wants new books for our library, she has to do fundraisers. It’s about class size. And my class sizes have grown immensely in the past few years, you know, classes of 35. And it’s just so much harder to have a relationship with your students and do what’s best for them, whenever you have so many—


ANDREA THOMAS: —and you’re just trying to survive.

AMY GOODMAN: Andrea, in Oklahoma—


AMY GOODMAN: —I think the teacher salaries are like 49th in the country. That’s 49 out of 50. Also, in some school districts, there’s so little money that classes are only four days a week. They close school on the fifth day, also so teachers can make some extra money doing other jobs. How do you and your husband get by?

ANDREA THOMAS: Yes, we are relying on that fifth day now for our extra jobs. We both work at an Herbalife shop. We both, you know, sell Herbalife. I sell Monat. I clean houses. My husband, he even sells plasma, you know, his own plasma, when things get super tough. It’s caused us—

AMY GOODMAN: He sells his blood?


AMY GOODMAN: Do you find—are you cleaning the houses of your students?

ANDREA THOMAS: No, I do for a shop and for, you know, just some people in town.

AMY GOODMAN: That will amaze people around the country, that schools are closed on the fifth day, for teachers to be able to make more money and just because they can’t keep the schools open. I wanted to go across to Kentucky, to Mickey McCoy. You’re a retired English teacher, deeply concerned about your pension. Can you talk about what’s happening in Kentucky now, as thousands of teachers have descended on the state Capitol in Frankfort? Talk about what you’re most concerned with.

MICKEY McCOY: Well, I’m most concerned with, and most of my brothers and sisters who have come down, to 12,000 to 15,000 the other day, are concerned about this war that is on education. There’s a war on public education. And it seems that the teachers didn’t need to be drafted. They volunteered. And they will continue to volunteer until we can straighten out the things that need to be straightened out.

It’s not just about pensions. It’s not just about our medical insurance. Do you understand that we have like youth service centers that are being cut? And these youth service centers help the kids, both in urban areas and in rural areas, where I’m from, with things that they need, not only just school supplies, but a shirt on their back, shoes on their feet. They give them extra food to take home.

And this Legislature—well, this governor, Governor Matt Bevin, is sort of like a general in this war on education, public education, and wants to replace public education with charter schools, charter schools that will pick and choose who they’re going to teach, charter schools who will not care for—who will not take the underprivileged kids. They seem to—are able to build their little school the way they want to. And if this is allowed to be funded in Kentucky or any state, we’re going to change this nation into a place of the haves and have-nots. And we ain’t gonna let that happen. No, not in Kentucky.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to turn to the person who’s sitting right next to you, the Kentucky state Representative Attica Scott. Attica Scott is the first African-American woman to serve on Kentucky’s state—serve in Kentucky’s state Legislature in 20 years. Thousands of teachers descended on the Capitol yesterday. Can you talk about what it was like to simply get into your building, State Legislator Scott?

REP. ATTICA SCOTT: Definitely. Yes. Thank you so much. I actually come from an activism and organizing background as the former coordinator of Kentucky Jobs with Justice. So, for me, it was exciting to see this kind of mobilizing and organizing that we need to have more of in Kentucky. We need more of that righteous anger that Dr. King had. We need more of the people descending on their state Capitol and saying that Kentucky deserves better.

And I was there with my daughter, who is a public school student who wanted to be in Frankfort to support her public school teachers and to support public employees across Kentucky. And we made our way through the crowd, speaking to people, high-fiving with people, saying to people, “Thank you for being here. Thank you for speaking up for the people who can’t make it to Frankfort.” And for both of us, we understood clearly why it was such a tight pathway to get from my office in the Capitol Annex into the Capitol building. And that was just fine, because we weren’t the legislators who were trying to destroy public education or hurt public employees and public teachers. Instead, we—you know, I’m a legislator. My daughter is a student who supports public education. So we weren’t afraid to walk through the crowd. We walked through the crowd, and we knew we were walking through a group of friends and family members who were there standing up for themselves, while I went into the House chambers to fight for and with them.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you explain, State Representative Scott, the whole issue of demanding a reversal to a provision in a recently passed bill about sewage treatment that guts the pension benefits?

REP. ATTICA SCOTT: So, the sewage pension bill, Senate Bill 151, on the Thursday before Good Friday, that morning, it was a sewage bill. And by that afternoon, it was the so-called pension reform bill, a bill that members of the committee only had about five minutes to read, a bill that in fact is probably illegal because we did not have an actuarial analysis, a fiscal impact statement, on the bill and how it would impact the inviolable contract that we have with our public educators. And yet, members of the committee, then those of us on the House floor, were expected to vote on that bill, pass it out, with little to no debate in the committee.

We had extensive debate on the House floor, but it passed anyway, because, as Mickey said, the governor and his followers in the Legislature are determined to destroy public education. And taking away the agreement that we made with teachers, the inviolable contract, and moving their retirement benefits into a 401(k) plan, that violates our commitment to our public employees. And the way in which we—and I say “we” because I’m part of the Legislature, but it’s really the so-called new Republican majority. The way that they pushed that bill forward made it very clear that they knew that what they were doing was wrong. They knew that what there were doing was not in the best interest of the commonwealth of Kentucky. And those of us who are on the right side of this issue knew it, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: I understand that the Education Association called for everyone to wear red, a kind of—oh, wearing red is the sign of solidarity in a red-state revolt. Mickey, are you wearing red for ed?

MICKEY McCOY: You know, it just happened to just fit so well that I put it on.

AMY GOODMAN: And State Rep. Scott, same with you, your blouse?

REP. ATTICA SCOTT: I’m definitely wearing red for public ed.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, on Tuesday night, independent Senator Bernie Sanders tweeted out a video message applauding the teachers in Oklahoma and Kentucky.

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS: You know, there are pundits out there who talk about blue states and red states and purple states. I have never believed that. I think that any state in this country which has working people struggling economically, struggling to send their kids to school, struggling for healthcare, struggling for child care, that is a state that can become progressive. And I want to applaud the teachers in West Virginia, in Oklahoma, in Kentucky—so-called red states—who are helping to lead this country to change our national priorities, who are saying loudly and clearly that we’ve got to take care of our kids, we’ve got to take care of our schools, and that is more important than giving tax breaks to billionaires and large corporations. Thank you, teachers in West Virginia. Thank you, teachers in Oklahoma. Thank you, teachers in Kentucky. We’re with you. Take care.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that is Senator Bernie Sanders. You are in the state, State Representative Scott, of Kentucky. That is the state of the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell. Has he weighed in in any way? And how can the federal body, the Congress, deal with this strike, that is now crossing the country, from West Virginia to Oklahoma to Kentucky?

REP. ATTICA SCOTT: Unfortunately, the Senate majority leader has not weighed in in any way that would make any bit of difference for the people in the commonwealth of Kentucky. And that’s why what you’ve seen is a grassroots movement. You’ve seen the hashtag #120strong. Those are grassroots folks, who have said, “You know what? We don’t actually need elected officials to be our spokespeople. We’ll speak for ourselves, and we’ll organize ourselves, from Appalachian to urban to rural to suburban areas, and we’ll descend on and we’ll take over our state Capitol. And we’ll shut down our public schools until we not only get what we want as far as the public pension, but also making sure that we take care of our kids.” How dare we, in the commonwealth of Kentucky, remove funding for textbooks from our budget? On Monday of this week, we removed funding for textbooks from our budget. That is something that is inexcusable, unacceptable, and Kentucky deserves better.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to go back to Andrea Thomas in Oklahoma. What effect did the West Virginia—very successful West Virginia strike have on you going out on strike? And also, your concerns about your daughter? She’s a junior in high school right now?

ANDREA THOMAS: Yes, I would say the West Virginia strikes were inspiring for us as teachers. I’m in a Facebook group, and there’s been a lot of West Virginia teachers pipe in and say, “Stay strong. We’ve got you. We support you.” So, that’s nice.

As far as my daughter is concerned, yes, she’s a junior in high school. I am very concerned about how we’re going to afford to send her to college. It’s just so hard, in the environment that we have and in the lack of funding that we have. It’s just really hard to make ends meet and to find a way to send your own kid to school.


ANDREA THOMAS: I can tell you—

AMY GOODMAN: Go ahead, Andrea.

ANDREA THOMAS: Sorry. I mean, I can give you an example. Like, they had a deal at our school where kids were getting class rings. My daughter didn’t get a class ring. We couldn’t afford a class ring. So, it’s just things like that that hurt.

AMY GOODMAN: And you and your husband are both teachers. Your husband is selling his own blood, you’re cleaning houses, in addition to teaching.


AMY GOODMAN: You’ve got 4-day-a-week school, is that right? This is public school in Oklahoma.


AMY GOODMAN: So, the fifth day—


AMY GOODMAN: —because they can’t afford to keep the schools open the fifth day, and so you can work second and third jobs?

ANDREA THOMAS: Yes. And it does help with our second and third jobs. We have managed, I feel like, to handle that situation very well. Our students are still performing well with our 4-day week. They’re still getting the same amount of time that they got before. I feel like I might even be even getting more in, in my lessons, because I have longer hours. So, it hasn’t been negative, but it’s been helpful for us as teachers.

AMY GOODMAN: And finally, Mike Elk, as you look at this movement across the country, particularly in red states, the states that elected Donald Trump, you’ve been covering education for years. You come out of West Virginia, the successful teachers’ strike. Your final thoughts?

MIKE ELK: Well, Amy, I think we’re in a new era. I think we’re in a new period. And, you know, the only thing I can really compare this to is when we were organizing as digital media journalists. And I remember I was leading a drive at Politico in which I was fired, and Washington Post wrote an article called “Why don’t internet journalists organize.” It featured some of our organizing there at Politico. And I just remember hundreds of reporters tweeting about it and saying, “We’re going to get it done.” And the next couple years, we organized three outlets, including getting a first contract at HuffPo, Guardian, where I work, and other publications.

And what we found in that movement, I think, is what a lot of teachers are finding now, is the social media support has really changed the game. Teachers know, when they’re out on a picket line, and they post a photo, and hundreds of their neighbors like it on Facebook, that people have their back. And that feedback loops quite simply didn’t exist. So I think we’re getting into a new era here. People are upset with the war on teachers. You know, we’ve seen students walk out over Donald Trump’s repeal of DACA. We’ve seen students walk out over gun violence. We’re seeing teachers walk out now. And, you know, in the state of Oklahoma, as well as in Kentucky, we’re seeing a lot of local school boards being very supportive of folks walking out. So it’s no longer a teachers’ union versus the school board, or teachers’ union versus the students. It’s really students, teachers and school boards coming together against some of these Republican-dominated state legislatures.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to have to leave it there, Mike, but we’re going to continue, of course, to follow this. And we’re going to link to your piece, as you are senior labor reporter at Payday Report, “Wave of teachers’ wildcat strikes spreads to Oklahoma and Kentucky.” As you speak to us from Tulsa, thanks so much, and Andrea Thomas speaks to us from Oklahoma City, and Mickey McCoy, a retired English teacher, and state Democratic legislator Attica Scott speak to us from Louisville, Kentucky.

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, speaking about movements, we go south. We go to Memphis, Tennessee. Fifty years ago today, a man who led major movements, Dr. Martin Luther King, was gunned down, was assassinated on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel. Stay with us.

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