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.

Too Bad Durant Didn’t Take the Thunder with Him

I have several former students who left me at the end of their senior years filled with determination and plans to inspire young minds the way some teacher(s) had done for them. Some of them are close to graduating from college now. One of them posted a link about yet another school cutting its budget on Facebook tonight, adding that she thinks she has wasted her time in college.

This comes the day after Kevin Durant announced he’s leaving the Oklahoma City Thunder and people all over the state acted as if the sky was falling. But how many teachers have we lost? They weren’t looking for championship rings. They weren’t looking to make millions of dollars in a few short years. They were looking to pay their bills. They were hoping to have paper for their classrooms. Maybe even air conditioning in August when class resumes.

One Oklahoma teacher recently received a new home from Habitat for Humanity. That’s right, a person with a college degree and a salaried job that makes her responsible for the education and well being of dozens of children qualified for a Habitat house. A typical Oklahoma teacher salary usually leaves the teacher qualified for food stamps. And SoonerCare (Oklahoma’s welfare insurance) is a heck of a lot better than the “free” insurance the state gives teachers. Take it from one who’s still paying the bills from late 2014, you don’t want to have even minor surgery and only have HealthChoice for your insurance.

When my former student made her post, I pointed out the obvious. We don’t go into teaching for money, but to make a difference in the lives of kids. No matter how much money our legislators misspend or how much our districts have to cut their budgets, the kids will come to class. They will be there, looking to learn, looking for someone to make their lives better. Who will they find? In Oklahoma, it looks more and more like they’ll find either unqualified long-term substitutes or bitter teachers unable to relocate to another state.

Some of you will read this and say, “Those teachers are always whining about their pay. They knew the pay going in.” That’s true, and fair. What we didn’t know was that our pay would freeze, that the supplies we need to do our job would stop coming, and that our colleagues would be let go and not replaced, leaving them unemployed and us with classes too big for most teachers to manage.

Meanwhile, our elected officials are using taxpayer money to help subsidize the payroll of the Oklahoma City Thunder. The 168 employees of the team received $4 million in taxpayer money last year. That would have paid an army of teachers, although it wasn’t even the full salary for a starting player. Our teachers are the recipients of charitable handouts and welfare while our education budget is slashed more than a horny teenager in a Friday the 13th sequel, but our leaders are giving taxpayer money to an NBA team that that has a net worth of $950 million. We’d be better off if Durant had taken the whole team with him so our taxpayer money could be redirected. (Don’t give me the line about how much sales tax revenue is made thanks to the Thunder being here; you get my point.)

I finished telling this soon-to-be teacher that the school districts need to put the burden of making up the lost money on the parents, and explain to the parents the reason for this expense. The only way we’re going to see a change in the financial priorities of our legislature is if we can get angry parents into the voting booth. With July 1 behind us and schools finalizing the 2016-2017 budgets, be ready to learn what essential items you will now have to provide for your child, then make a change in November.