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Around the U.S., protesting teachers see some gains in conservative states

Around the U.S., protesting teachers see some gains in conservative states
Kentucky public school teachers protest at the state capitol in Frankfort on April 13, 2018. (Bill Pugliano / Getty Images)

West Virginia. Oklahoma. Kentucky. Arizona.

An unexpected labor uprising has gripped some red states over the last two months as public school teachers have staged protests and strikes over low pay and strained education budgets.

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And so far, the agitation has gotten results, with Republican-led legislatures approving uncharacteristic tax hikes and funding boosts in response to the public pressure.

Labor activism is nothing new to teachers in both red and blue states. The profession is heavily unionized, and its major unions — the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Assn. — are among the largest in the U.S.

But a renewed militancy has crept into the profession this year, especially in conservative-leaning states, where teachers say education funding and wages have fallen behind after lawmakers prioritized tax cuts over new spending.

Teachers have been most emboldened by their counterparts in states where the wages are lowest, such as West Virginia. The state ranks 48th in the U.S., with an average salary of $45,622, according to the most recently available data from the National Education Assn.

Wages are highest in New York, where the average pay is $79,152, and California, where teachers average $77,179.

Here's a summary of what's happened in four key red states.

West Virginia

Teachers undertook the first large-scale labor action of the year in the Mountain State, no stranger to worker uprisings.

Schools shut down in all 55 counties in West Virginia on Feb. 22 as public school teachers called a statewide strike. Many were clad in red bandannas, the symbol of the mine workers in the state's "mine wars" of the early 20th century.

Pay was low. But the even greater issue, many teachers said, was the Public Employee Insurance Agency, which provides health insurance for state employees.

The program is funded 80% by employers and 20% by employees. As healthcare costs continue to soar, teachers were being asked to fork over more and more to fund their health insurance plans.

For nine days, teachers thronged the capital, at one point voting to override their own union leaders to continue the strike, the state's first by teachers since 1990.

The uprising came to an end after Republican Gov. Jim Justice signed a bill hiking pay for teachers, as well as other state employees, by 5% this year. (Teachers' salary schedules are set by state statute.) Justice also promised to launch a task force to address issues with the state's health-insurance program.

Oklahoma

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The rebellion spread to the Sooner State.

While the West Virginia strike caught the imagination of Oklahoma teachers, an education funding crisis had been brewing in Oklahoma for years.

Many districts had cut down to four-day weeks. On Facebook, teachers shared photos of books and classrooms falling apart. One first-grader recently discovered she had been assigned the same textbook used by country music star Blake Shelton, who is 41.

And teacher pay was even lower than in West Virginia, with average salaries of $45,276.

Districts complained of constantly losing teachers to higher-paying schools in neighboring states, including Oklahoma's 2016 Teacher of the Year, who moved to Texas, where the average salary is $51,890.

And so, with school districts heavily dependent on the state for financing, frustrated school boards and superintendents supported teachers' plans to go on strike by making plans to cancel school on April 2.

Teachers, demanding $10,000 in raises, have gone on strike for nine days. The Republican-controlled state legislature, in response, approved $6,000 in raises, passing the first tax hikes by the legislature since 1992. But further gains have been elusive.

Sensing an impasse, the Oklahoma Education Assn., the state's most influential teachers' union, called for an end to the strike Thursday, saying that energies should instead be directed toward the November elections.

But some teachers have urged continued action, signaling that the fight, at least this school year, may not be over.

Kentucky

As tensions rose around the nation, teachers flooded to private Facebook groups that amassed tens of thousands of members, where educators in places such as Oklahoma and Arizona began discussing the low pay and tight budgets in their own states.

In Kentucky, the secret "KY120 UNITED" group — a reference to Kentucky's 120 counties — has amassed more than 42,000 members.

Caught up in the movement, teachers in Kentucky have also flocked to their state's capitol in recent weeks to lock horns with Republican Gov. Matt Bevin and the Republican-led legislature over education funding.

Teachers were outraged in recent weeks by a surprise bill that that — among other measures — would give lawmakers the power to adjust the pension plans of new teachers. Currently, teachers receive pension benefits that are "inviolable" under state law, meaning lawmakers can't change them.

The changes were tacked onto a sewage bill, heightening suspicions.

On Friday, the legislature overrode vetoes by Bevin to pass tax and budget bills expected to raise nearly $400 million and boost some education funding.

Bevin was not a fan of the protests that had engulfed the capitol and shut down schools around the state, and on Friday he accused teachers of putting children in physical danger by canceling school.

"I guarantee you somewhere in Kentucky today, a child was sexually assaulted that was left at home because there was nobody there to watch them," Bevin told local reporters, providing no evidence. "I guarantee you somewhere today, a child was physically harmed or ingested poison because they were left alone because a single parent didn't have any money to take care of them."

Following an uproar by teachers and lawmakers, Bevin apologized for the remarks Sunday, saying, "I apologize for those who have been hurt by the things that were said" and that it was "not my intent."

Arizona

In Arizona, they call the education movement #RedForEd. You may have guessed: The protesting teachers wear red. And they're talking about going on strike.

Demonstrations in Arizona have swelled at the capitol and at schools as teachers protested for more education funding and higher pay. Salaries in the state average $47,218, or 43rd in the nation, according to the National Education Assn.

The movement is also being driven, in large part, by organizing happening on Facebook, in a group called "Arizona Educators United," which boasts more than 45,000 members.

Last week, organizers announced their intention to organize a walkout unless teachers received a 20% raise, though they did not set a date.

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On Wednesday, thousands of teachers gathered outside their schools in "walk-ins" before classes began.

The pressure seems to have worked.

On Thursday, Republican Gov. Doug Ducey announced plans to boost teacher pay — by 20% by 2020, through a series of year-by-year raises.

Matt Pearce is a national reporter for The Times. Follow him on Twitter at @mattdpearce.

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