‘It Really Is a Wildfire’: Teachers Go on Strike in Oklahoma and Kentucky

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Mr. Karvelis said that younger teachers had been primed for activism by their anger over the election of President Trump, his appointment of Betsy DeVos as education secretary and even their own students’ participation in anti-gun protests after the school shooting in Parkland, Fla.

“Teachers for a long time have had a martyr mentality,” Mr. Karvelis said. “This is new.”

The wave of protest is cresting as the Supreme Court prepares a decision in Janus v. Afscme, a major case in which the court is expected to make it harder for public sector unions to require workers to pay membership fees. But the recent walkouts suggest that labor activism may not need highly funded unions to be effective. Unlike in strongholds for labor, like New York or California, teachers’ unions in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Kentucky and Arizona are barred by law from compelling workers to pay dues. Yet that has not stopped protesters from making tough demands of lawmakers.

Striking West Virginia teachers declared victory last month after winning a 5 percent raise, but Oklahoma educators are holding out for more.

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Teachers and their supporters protested against a pension reform bill at the Kentucky State Capitol in Frankfort on Monday.

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Bill Pugliano/Getty Images

Last 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 funding for schools and raises for support staff like bus drivers and custodians.

About 200 of the state’s 500 school districts shut down on Monday as teachers walked out, defying calls from some parents and administrators for them to be grateful for what they had already 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 last 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, 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; currently, 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 Mr. 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,” Mr. Karvelis said. “Whether that ultimately ends in a strike? That’s certainly a possibility. We just want to win.”

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Oklahoma educators are holding out for more than the $6,000 per year raise that was signed by the Legislature last week.

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Alex Flynn for The New York Times

Mr. Karvelis, 23, said teachers would not walk out of class unless they were able to win support from parents and community members across the state, including in rural areas. But he said the movement would be influential regardless of whether it shuts down schools.

“We’re going to have a lot of teachers at the ballot box who I don’t think would normally go in a midterm year,” he said. “If I were a legislator right now, I’d be honestly sweating bullets.”

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.”

“This is the civics lesson of our time,” she said. “The politicians on both sides of the aisle are rubbing the sleep out of their eyes.”

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