Students join Oklahoma teachers in protest to demand better school funding
Teachers besiege the state capitol in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma April 4, 2018 to demand more funding for education AFP / J Pat Carter

Students joined teachers in Oklahoma City Wednesday for a third day of protests demanding that state lawmakers increase funding for public schools after years of budget cuts.

"We the students of Oklahoma are with you for as long as this strike takes," student Cameron Olbert told a rally outside the state capitol, epicenter of a protest that has attracted tens of thousands of people.

Protesters on Tuesday overwhelmed offices of their state representatives and jeered when Republican-controlled legislature refused to consider additional school funding.

The protests are part of a mid-term election year wave that is sweeping Republican-dominated states where teachers have had to cope with years of low pay and cuts to public schools.

Oklahoma is among a handful of states that cut its education budget deeply as public coffers were drained by tax cuts and the 2008 economic downturn.

Even though the economy has improved, the education cuts have not been restored, prompting struggling teachers to fight back.

Their protest has brought to light stories of teachers taking multiple jobs to make ends meet and classrooms in disrepair.

The teachers' union said many of its members were prepared to protest through the week, if not beyond.

On Wednesday, they got a boost from the students, who organized their own rally.

"We're not just here for teacher pay raises," Oldbert said.

"We are here for support staff. We are here for arts and music programs that have been decimated for the last decade. We are here for chairs that don't break when we sit on them."

Students, some of whom are near voting age, threatened to punish unresponsive politicians in the November mid-terms, raising the stakes for Republicans in what would normally be one of their strongholds.

Oklahoma lawmakers recently agreed to a rare tax increase to bump teachers' pay by an average of $6,100 a year.

But that was not enough to placate educators, who insist cuts in recent years have been far deeper than what lawmakers have given back, and that school funding in general, and not just salaries, must be increased.

The states of Kentucky, Arizona and West Virgina have been hit by similar protests.

West Virginia led the way with a nine-day strike last month won teachers their first pay raise in four years.