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Oklahoma teachers hold second day of walkout protests over school funding

“If I didn’t have a second job, I’d be on food stamps,” said Rae Lovelace, a single mother and third-grade teacher in Oklahoma.

by Kalhan Rosenblatt and The Associated Press /  / Updated 
A man portraying Lt. Samuel Nicholson, the first U.S. Marine, joins the teachers' rally Monday in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.J Pat Carter / Getty Images

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More than a thousand Oklahoma teachers wearing red shirts and carrying signs swarmed the state Capitol building on Tuesday to demand higher wages and more funding for education.

But the educators, students and supporters who'd gathered were met with more roadblocks and frustration after the Oklahoma House of Representatives voted to adjourn for the day after meeting in the morning for a few hours, relegating discussions of the teachers' concerns to Wednesday afternoon.

The crowd's cheers and chants of "We will be back!" echoed through the building as they vowed to return for another day of protests.

"We aren’t walking out on the kids. We're walking out for the kids," said Alberto Morejon, a junior high teacher and the organizer of the Facebook page that spurred the protest.

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The two-day Oklahoma City rally, which led to several school closures, comes on the heels of a pay raise for teachers signed by Republican Gov. Mary Fallin last week, which increased teachers' pay by 15 to 18 percent.

But protesting educators and school employees said they need more from the state after years of struggling with outdated textbooks, broken desks and shorter school weeks in the absence of desperately needed funding. Some teachers at Monday's rally said they were forced to raise funds for basic school supplies or pay for them themselves.

"The bill they passed is a short-term solution," Morejon said. "If they don’t pass a long-term solution, you and I are going to be sitting here again 10 years from now."

Morejon said he and his wife could make a substantially greater income as teachers if they moved to a state like Texas, and urged Oklahoma lawmakers to make the state competitive by increasing teachers' salaries.

“If I didn’t have a second job, I’d be on food stamps,” said Rae Lovelace, a single mother and a third-grade teacher at Leedey Public Schools in northwest Oklahoma who works 30 to 40 hours a week at a second job teaching online courses for a charter school.

At least 27 school districts in Oklahoma — including Oklahoma City, Tulsa and Edmond, the three largest in the state — remained closed on Tuesday, according to NBC News affiliate KFOR.

In a statement on Monday evening, Fallin noted that she had signed legislation that allowed for $50 million "for the state aid funding formula and textbooks," which amounted to a nearly 20 percent increase in such appropriations.

"Just like Oklahoma families, we are only able to do what our budget allows. Significant revenue-raising measures were approved to make this pay raise and additional school funding possible," Fallin said. "We must be responsible not to neglect other areas of need in the state such as corrections and health and human services as we continue to consider additional education funding measures."

Some lawmakers appeared frustrated by the teachers' protests following the passage of a raise. Oklahoma Rep. Kevin McDugle, a Republican, posted a video on Facebook telling the teachers that they were losing support by continuing to protest at the Capitol.

"I voted for every teacher measure to fund them all last year. Took us a year and a half to pass it and now they come into this House and want to act this way. I'm not voting for another stinking measure when they're acting the way they're acting," said McDugle, closing his video by saying, "Be pissed with me if you want to."

The Facebook post has since been deleted but was captured by NBC News affiliate KJRH. NBC News was not immediately able to reach McDugle for comment.

Oklahoma Rep. Collin Walke, a Democrat, said teachers should keep up the pressure. Two separate bills pending in the Legislature to expand tribal gambling and eliminate the income tax deduction for capital gains could generate more than $100 million in additional funding each year.

“I think the Republican strategy is to wait the teachers out,” Walke said.

But many teachers on Monday said they planned to protest as long as it takes to get the increases they're after. For them, the $50 million increase in general education funding signed last week isn't enough.

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Oklahoma ranks 47th among the 50 states and the District of Columbia in public school revenue per student, while its average teacher salary of $45,276 ranked 49th before the latest raises, according to the most recent statistics from the National Education Association.

The teachers are asking for a $10,000 raise over three years, and additional classroom funding of $75 million.

The demonstrations were inspired by West Virginia, where teachers walked out for nine days earlier this year and won a 5 percent increase in pay. Teachers in Arizona are now considering a strike over their demands for a 20 percent salary increase.

On Monday, every public school in Kentucky closed after teachers gathered at the state Capitol to protest a pension overhaul bill that Republican lawmakers passed last week. On Tuesday, at least 26 schools in two counties remained closed.

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Gov. Matt Bevin, a Republican, has not yet signed the bill, but last week tweeted his support, saying public workers owe “a deep debt of gratitude” to lawmakers who voted to pass it.

During Monday’s rally, some teachers, angry at lawmakers who supported the bill, chanted, “Vote them out.”

Melissa Wash, a first-grade teacher from Gallatin County who has been teaching for 19 years, said she voted for Bevin — but now plans to become a Democrat.

To the lawmakers who voted for the pension overhaul, she warned: “You better not count on another year in office.”

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