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Thousands Of Teachers Across Oklahoma And Kentucky Are On Strike

They're protesting years of low salaries and reduced spending on students.

Last updated on April 2, 2018, at 4:54 p.m. ET

Posted on April 2, 2018, at 9:16 a.m. ET

Tens of thousands of teachers at more than 200 schools in Oklahoma went on strike Monday to protest low pay and subpar learning conditions for students.

Sue Ogrocki / AP

About 30,000 teachers were expected at the state capitol in Oklahoma City, where they formed long picket lines.

There is now a continuous line of teachers circumnavigating the Oklahoma State Capitol, protesting state funding level for public schools. #oklaedwalkout #oklahomateacherwalkout https://t.co/w28J4KgOkS

Here's a look at the main crowd.

Here’s the size of the crowd outside the capitol in Oklahoma City right now. Public school teachers are striking with the support of parents, students and superintendents, just like in WV and KY. The mood is electric. https://t.co/4NPCZcCnXG

Many teachers in Oklahoma work second and third jobs to make ends meet. There were plenty of signs to that effect in the crowd.

Cora Lewis/BuzzFeed News

Teachers who spoke to BuzzFeed News inside the Oklahoma State Capitol said they have been funding their classrooms out of their own pockets.

A teacher in Oklahoma says she’s been buying textbooks for her students: “I’m funding my classroom, which is great, but I need them to now step up in order to do that” https://t.co/mieB5ckbBH

Many signs were creative...

Cora Lewis/BuzzFeed News

... and some were damning.

Audrey Nelson, left, teaches French, Spanish, and English as a second language. "It used to be I could support my kids," she said. "Then I had to take a second job, and now I'm looking at a third." Her daughter, Ava, right, is an aspiring teacher who hopes to stay in Oklahoma.
Cora Lewis/BuzzFeed News

Audrey Nelson, left, teaches French, Spanish, and English as a second language.

"It used to be I could support my kids," she said. "Then I had to take a second job, and now I'm looking at a third."

Her daughter, Ava, right, is an aspiring teacher who hopes to stay in Oklahoma.

Some of the signs carried by educators said Oklahoma teachers often leave to teach in neighboring states because the pay is higher there.

Cora Lewis / BuzzFeed News

A 2017 University of Oklahoma study found that teachers who leave the state make an average of $19,000 more per year.

“Please don’t make me move to Texas.” #OklaEd #oklahomateacherwalkout

"We teach future doctors, lawyers, and Indian chiefs."

Cora Lewis/BuzzFeed News

Students came out to show their support.

Cora Lewis/BuzzFeed News

Jordan Carter, 13, Kennedy Fridia, 11, and Skyler Carter, 9, said they came to the capitol to support their teachers. The students said overcrowding is a problem, with as many as 30 kids per class, and there are often not enough desks for everyone to sit.

Cora Lewis

Other students told BuzzFeed News about classroom conditions that brought them out to protest — this art student said his class hasn't had blue paint for months.

An art student in Oklahoma: “We ran out of blue paint two months ago...there’s no paper, there aren’t pencils, we’re out of glue...last year I had four classes where I didn’t have a chair” https://t.co/Ry5F3JCJQH

Oklahoma teachers and students have been posting images of their outdated textbooks to help illustrate why people are protesting.

I'm taking AP European History and this is what info our textbooks contain. Someone wrote in the most recent presidents. They have Tony Blair as the most recent PM. How am I supposed to get a 5 on the AP test with outdated info? #oklaed #oklahomateacherwalkout #oklaedwalkout https://t.co/e016Xv7hu6

In addition to improved teacher pay, protesters showed up to demand raises for public school support staff, like janitors, cafeteria workers, and aides.

One of the top reasons teachers in Oklahoma are walking out, despite a $6,000 raise legislators passed, is that classroom support staff won’t see their pay increase and per pupil classroom funding remains rock-bottom. https://t.co/aptior8LLX

Signs (and memes) also called attention to the fact that designated funding for students in classrooms — for things like school supplies — remains among the lowest in the country.

Cora Lewis

Jason Lightel, 38, a high school English teacher from McAlester, Oklahoma, said he decided to strike when he learned the bill the Oklahoma legislature passed last week did not include increased funding for support staff. "It was the equivalent of a pizza night a month for them," he said of the allocated money.

Some teachers, like Jason Lightel, 38, of McAlester, OK, have been here since 5:30 am. Lightel teaches high school English. “McAlester was made famous in Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath. I grade essays that look like this. The Joads go to CA. Our teachers go to TX.” https://t.co/04ppJOSnTE

"It's not just about us," a kindergarten teacher told BuzzFeed News.

A kindergarten teacher in Oklahoma told @BuzzFeedNews that schools need funding for support staff: "Without [my teacher's aid], I would be spending more time with my special needs children than teaching the whole class." https://t.co/YOxLB5cKei

The teachers were bused to Oklahoma City at dawn from all over the state.

Bus full of TPS teachers and students ready to take off from @BTWHSTulsa and head to the capitol to walkout all day. #oklaed #oklaedwalkout @NewsOn6 https://t.co/URVhuFiI8G

Around 1 p.m. — more than six hours after the first teachers arrived — people continued to arrive to protest at the state capitol.

Quick timelapse of protesters outside the OK State Capitol. #OklahomaTeacherWalkout #Oklaed

Some educators had gone on strike decades prior.

Sherri Peckham, retired teacher from Tecumseh. "I was here at the last walkout (in 1990)." #oklaed #oklaedwalkout

Hope Davis, a sophomore at Oklahoma public high school, spoke to the crowd during the rally. "Many refer to it as a historic bill," she said of the raise passed by legislators. "Many fail to realize that funding education should not be historical. It should be normal." Signs throughout the day said the same.

Cora Lewis

Also at the main rally, National Education Association president Lily Eskelsen García‎ addressed the crowd and called on legislators to make real change for teachers and students.

"For a dozen years, we sent emails and letters and phone calls and visits. For years, we’ve explained what was happening as they ignored the needs of public schools. And they ignored us. And now we are taking to the streets." #OKWalk4Kids #oklaed https://t.co/cf4sYbaJV2

"You have given them your blood, sweat and tears – your early mornings and your late evenings because you believe in this thing called public education that makes the world a better place for someone else’s child," García‎ told teachers.

Schools are preparing for classes to be closed for the entire week, as teachers say they'll be on strike until the state legislature provides more education funding.

The crowd continues to grow outside the Capitol, moving in mass around the building’s exterior. #oklahomateacherwalkout #oklaed https://t.co/jn0jCA2C4o

On Monday afternoon, Oklahoma City Public Schools announced that schools would also be closed Tuesday due to the walkout.

Teachers and volunteers registered new voters – students who will turn eighteen by November. One registration worker said 50 new voters were registered.

Cora Lewis

Teachers in Kentucky also protested in their state capitol on Monday, demanding higher wages and calling on Governor Matt Bevin to veto a controversial bill passed last week that overhauls teacher pension plans.

Bill Pugliano / Getty Images

More than 100 Kentucky school districts are on spring break this week, but more than a dozen other districts cancelled school on Monday so that teachers could travel to protest.

In Frankfort, #Kentucky standing with teachers against a budget that devastates education and workers. We're not gonna take it. #120strong #APensionIsAPromise #WeAreKY https://t.co/GJE1TSzMXg

In Oklahoma, the walkout is technically a “wildcat” action, which means the strike was not authorized by union leaders. Oklahoma’s frontline workers instead organized for weeks online and in person, relying on a Facebook group of tens of thousands called “Oklahoma Teachers United.

Ready for #oklaedwalkout tomorrow. Students deserve better than broken desks and broken promises. #fundeducation #oklaed #okleg #teachingisimportant https://t.co/EVWZBEdQWV

Larry Cagle, one of the original organizers, told BuzzFeed News that the teachers’ mandate has come from the workers, students, and parents, rather than the union.

“The union has been playing catch-up,” he said.

Thanks to years of austerity budgeting, Oklahoma teachers haven’t had an across-the-board raise in 10 years, while funding per pupil has been slashed by 28% since 2008.

One of the reasons it’s not over yet...This is a textbook from my daughter’s class. It’s a history book and the current President in it is George W. Bush. We can do better Oklahoma. #OklahomaTeacherWalkout #oklaed #oklaleg @gophouseok @oksenategop @housedemsok @oksenatedems https://t.co/F5FE3JcFQh

Galvanized by the success of teachers in West Virginia, who won a 5% increase from lawmakers after a nine-day walkout, the Oklahoma teachers are asking for a $10,000 raise over the next three years, as well as increased investment in classroom budgets.

Spencer Platt / Getty Images

Many districts have been forced to go from five-day weeks to four in Oklahoma, to deal with the crisis of resources. Textbooks are hard to come by or out of date, and arts and music classes have been eliminated, while class sizes have swelled.

Pay in Oklahoma is currently the lowest in the nation, with teachers’ salaries beginning at just $31,600 for a teacher with a bachelor’s degree, a floor set by the state legislature.

Watch an earlier stream of interviews here:

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