Another Open Letter to Oklahoma Lawmakers


State Question 779 was not a good bill. It put the burden of the legislature’s job of funding teacher salaries onto the shoulders of everyone in Oklahoma, hurting the poor the most. And so it failed. One can hope people voted it down because it was a regressive tax and not because they feel like Oklahoma teachers are overpaid, but … Who really knows?

Oklahoma ranks 48th out of 50 states and D.C. in the quality of education our kids receive. You get what you pay for, as we also ranked 48 in per pupil spending. Prior to the start of this school year (2016-2017), 1,530 teaching jobs were eliminated due to the Oklahoma Legislature’s failure to diversify state revenue and mismanagement of the funds that did come in. Despite that, school districts had a hard time finding teachers to take the open positions they could fill. There were no teachers left to take those jobs. Between May and August the State Board of Education had issued 730 emergency teaching certifications to people with no prior teaching experience, and that’s after issuing 685 last school year.

Classrooms are overcrowded. Untrained people have been put in charge of kids. Student achievement is getting worse. Oklahoma is getting dumber.

And you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

The failure of SQ 779 means that the floodgates are about to open in a way you haven’t imagined. The $5,000 pay raise the penny sales tax would have provided still wouldn’t have brought Oklahoma teacher salaries within range of our neighboring states, but it would have been something, a frayed rope thrown to a swimmer in a stormy sea. The legislature has shown over and over that it doesn’t want to pay teachers. Now the people have supported that view.

Texas, Arkansas, Missouri, even Kansas all pay their teachers salaries that, by comparison, show just how little Oklahoma cares about having quality educators. When those states start posting their openings for 2017-2018, they’re going to be swamped with applicants from Oklahoma. This state is about to see a teacher shortage so severe that it may finally kill public education here.

Let’s play with numbers.

My current annual salary is $38,000, which is the state minimum for someone with my credentials. I have a master’s degree and 11 years experience teaching. According to Sperling’s Best Places, the cost of living in Oklahoma City is 87.2 percent of the national average. A teacher with the same credentials earns $54,480 in Springfield, Missouri, where the cost of living is 84 percent of the national average. In Ft. Smith, Arkansas, those credentials would bring a salary of $52, 045 at a cost of living that is 82.1 percent of the national average. In Wichita, Kansas, the pay is $52,768 with a cost of living at 84.6. My favorite, though, is Amarillo, Texas. They don’t have their detailed pay schedule online, but based on the information they do offer, a mid-range salary for a classroom teacher is $59,640 and the cost of living comes in at 83.3.

Let’s sum that up. I could go a few dozen miles west of the state line and increase my pay by over $21,000 per year and it would cost me almost 4 percent less to live there.

I don’t want to leave. I don’t want to leave my students to suffer with whatever warm body my current employer can find to replace me next year. I don’t want to leave Oklahoma, the state I’ve called home for all of my 50 years. But as a Republican myself, I do adhere to the credo of, “If your current situation isn’t good enough, take responsibility and change it.” That’s what we said when middle-aged McDonald’s workers wanted $15 per hour, right?

Like many of my colleagues, I’m working more than one job. I teach high school English full time. I also adjunct teach at a local community college, bring in a little bit per month with my fiction writing, and sometimes I get lucky and can officiate a wedding for a few extra bucks. It doesn’t pay extra, but most of my “free time” is spent grading papers from those first two jobs. Also, my wife works. Still, it isn’t enough.

You people in the state congress will bandy about words, pretend you care about us, but in the end you probably won’t do anything to help. In the spring we’ll apply in other states, we’ll pack up our belongings, cut our losses on our homes with the earthquake damage done by your pet injection wells, and we’ll go away and leave kids who need us. It won’t be easy for us, but sometimes we have to put our biological kids ahead of our school kids and do what’s best to provide for our own families.

We’ll also leave the stress of multiple jobs, of having more students than we can reasonably manage, of having to buy our own school supplies, and of looking at our neighbors and wondering why they turned us out by voting no on SQ 779 and and yes on putting the party with an anti-public education track record back in power.

If you really care about education in Oklahoma, you have until the first of May to show it. We’re waiting.

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