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ANALYSIS-Sagging school funding fuels U.S. teacher protests

CHICAGO, April 4 (Reuters) - U.S. teacher demonstrations are likely to spread as more educators hit the streets to take on states that they claim are choosing tax cuts over the education of students in elementary and secondary public schools.

Protests have erupted in states with some of the lowest teacher salaries in the nation, leading to multi-day job actions in a few states.

For a graphic showing teacher salaries, click: (https://tmsnrt.rs/2IsvlGa)

Educator unrest began in West Virginia, where teachers ended a nine-day strike last month after the state approved a 5 percent pay hike.

This week, massive teacher protests closed schools in Oklahoma.

American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten said the demonstrations, which have so far taken place in right-to-work states with weak labor laws, underscore how fed up teachers have become over the deprivation caused by inadequate funding due to tax cuts.

"I do think this will happen more and more because the era of passive resignation seems to be over. And that's only good news for the children that we serve and the educators we represent," Weingarten told Reuters.

Oklahoma has the lowest median pay among states for both elementary and secondary school teachers, according to 2017 data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The state's budget has been hit by a combination of tax cuts and a slump in energy prices, a significant source of tax revenue.

Weingarten said teachers there are struggling with stagnant pay, decades-old textbooks and big class sizes.

ARIZONA HEAT

Meanwhile, teacher unrest is growing in Arizona.

Median teacher salaries in the Grand Canyon state are among the lowest in the nation, leading to a retention problem. A report last year by the Morrison Institute for Public Policy at Arizona State University found that almost a quarter of teachers hired between 2013 and 2015 were no longer teaching after a year, while 42 percent of teachers hired in 2013 lasted no more than three years.

Dan Hunting, a senior policy analyst at the institute, said taxes in Arizona as a percentage of the economy have been reduced by about a third since the early 1990s, resulting in less state money for schools.

"It's going to take a while for us to get out of this. There's not going to be a magic bullet," Hunting said.

The common thread in all three states is tax cuts that were undertaken in the years before and after the Great Recession, according to Michael Leachman, director of state fiscal research at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. The group describes itself as a nonpartisan research institute.

"Teacher compensation is the biggest part of school budgets," he said. "If you cut the revenue that's available to spend on schools it makes it hard to pay for qualified teachers."

On a national basis, 47 percent of funding for public schools comes from states, with 45 percent raised locally and 8 percent coming from the federal government, Leachman said. In more than half of the states, per-pupil funding from state and local sources from 2008 through 2015 was below 2008 levels.

For a graphic showing the change in per pupil education funding, click: (https://tmsnrt.rs/2Iumbck)

Leachman said problems could be brewing in the low-teacher pay states of North Carolina and Mississippi.

For example, North Carolina is projecting budget shortfalls topping $1 billion starting in fiscal 2020 as income tax cuts are phased in, according to a July five-year forecast.

When state funding falls, some mostly poorer school districts are unable to make up the difference, leading to inequities among districts. Funding inequities have fueled lawsuits in 46 states over the last 45 years, according to Michael Rebell, who heads the Center for Educational Equity at Columbia University's Teachers College, which tracks school funding litigation. He said districts and other plaintiffs that have sued states have prevailed 60 percent of the time.

To remedy those cases, states tend to hold rich districts harmless and give poor districts a bigger funding increase, he said.

(Reporting by Karen Pierog in Chicago Editing by Daniel Bases and Matthew Lewis)