In August 2016, the Oklahoma School Boards Association reported that districts across the state were trying to fill more than 500 vacancies for the 2016-2017 school year. These vacancies came from eliminating 1,500 teachers and 1,300 supporting staff positions. To fill these remaining spots, the state has been forced to rely on emergency certified teachers. This certification can be given to someone with a bachelor’s degree, in any subject, who passes several required tests. In 2015-2016, more than 1,063 certifications were issued by the state, compared to 32 in 2011-2012.
But the state’s ability to fill these positions with graduating education majors may also be slim. Since 2008, enrollment in education training programs has dropped in the state of Oklahoma. In 2008-2009, there were 23,631 enrolled in accredited programs; in 2015-2016 there were 4,6546 enrolled, with 545 enrolled in alternative, non-IHE (institute of higher education) based programs.
This didn’t surprise Phillip Applegate, the Dean of Continuing Education and Lifelong Learning at TU. “I can’t imagine why anyone in their right mind would go into education in Oklahoma these days,” he said. TU has been largely unaffected by the dropping enrollment rates of education majors, hovering from 150 in 2011-2012 to 110 in 2015-2016. Part of this, Applegate suspected, was that many of TU’s education students are from surrounding states, and plan to return to these states when they leave.
Julie Tandy, who currently studies elementary education at TU, agreed, but added that local students who study at TU, like herself, also often leave the state upon graduation. They “have very little to entice them into staying, especially when moving just a state away to Arkansas or Texas could give them a huge raise and a huge boost in school quality.” Those who do stay, she believed, “are doing so to stay near family or because their spouse or significant other has a job that makes more money than teaching that requires them to stay in Oklahoma.”
Of the five students interviewed for this article, all were from Oklahoma, and all but one planned to eventually move to a surrounding state to teach.
Emma Moseley emphasized their struggle, saying “I want to go back [to Owasso] so badly, but I don’t think it’s a smart choice to stay in Oklahoma.” Other former administrators and teachers have told her “as soon as you get your degree, leave … My high school teachers, before I left, were telling me try something else. Not because they don’t think I can do it, just because they know that you get frustrated with the politics of it and not being able to change that.”
Tameka Collins also embodied another struggle, as her husband, another teacher, is from Texas. The one who planned to stay and teach in the state for about ten years, Melissa Buchman, said she hoped to eventually obtain a law degree in education so she could help fix the system.
Collins, a current TU elementary education major, said “it goes back to pay every single time. Obviously money isn’t everything to me or I wouldn’t have chosen to be a teacher in the first place, but I need it to survive.” When she first started her degree, she believed she would stay in state, but has adjusted her plans as a result of the state of teaching and her marriage.
Because of the low salary, Buchman said she’d been told to “marry wealthy” if she wanted to go into teaching. But, she argued, she should be able to support a family on her teaching salary without having to do so.
The major reason for this lack of teachers, according to Applegate, current education majors and reports from current teachers in the public press, is pay. Oklahoma has the lowest teacher salary of the surrounding states, and consistently ranks in the bottom of the nation in teacher salary. This low salary is compounded by the fact many teachers buy supplies for their classroom and students out of their own pockets, according to Tandy.
Another issue detracting from attracting new teachers was respect. Several of those interviewed felt teachers in Oklahoma weren’t respected very much. Tandy said, “for instance, when SQ779 didn’t pass, the comments on the Tulsa World article on Facebook were filled with sentiments of ‘stop whining, you make $x, that’s plenty’ or ‘get another job’.”
“Even though we are working hard and getting that four year degree,” Moseley said that teachers often aren’t respected or paid as professionals. “I have people telling me I’m wasting my talents because I’m going into education,” she added. “I could technically do a lot of other majors, but I want to do this so badly. But it’s almost like, am I an idiot? I could make like double my salary easily, but that would be so boring.”
Several different explanations were offered as to how Oklahoma became so notorious for a poor education system. Most argued parts of the legislature didn’t prioritize education, instead either focusing on other issues of governance or focusing on overly minute details.
“The last couple of legislative sessions, I think we moved into the idea that if we kept cutting taxes dramatically, everyone would flood into Oklahoma and there’d be development. But that came at the price of dramatically reduced public services,” Applegate said. Since 2000, the state government has slashed the state income tax. The top income tax bracket has been cut by almost a fourth, from 6.65 percent before 2004 to five percent in 2016. According to an analysis conducted for Oklahoma Policy Institute by the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy in January of 2016, the “annual cost of cuts to the top personal income tax rate enacted since 2005 is $1.022 billion”. While the state did initially see robust growth in annual appropriations until about 2009 due to high energy prices, since then the state has seen little growth to a loss in appropriations. “So people are going to have to come up with a better political and economical philosophy to move forward cause this isn’t working very well,” Applegate concluded.
Moseley also pointed to misguided priorities in the legislature. In 2015, the legislature debated banning AP US History, under HB 1380, although ultimately they did not do so. The bill was sponsored by Rep. Dan Fisher, who believed the new AP framework viewed America as “nation of oppressors and exploiters” and shows “what is bad about America.”
“Right now, our issues are teachers making a self-sustained salary where they can actually live a life,” Moseley said. “There’s so many important things and they’re over here debating whether or not we should keep this class.”
She also brought up the debate over Common Core, saying that while the state had decided to not use the system, the standards legislators created were “just about the same” as Common Core. She recalled teachers who used Common Core worksheets, but because of state policy, the teachers cross out the name “Common Core” before they use them in class.
“We spent so much time and energy redoing those guidelines,” she said, with reference to Common Core, but hadn’t focused on other important issues like teacher pay.
Tandy noted oftentimes the teachers don’t seem to factor into legislative decisions. “Major decisions are made without really considering how it will affect teachers. For instance, elementary reading curriculum changed to a program that almost every teacher hates — it’s incredibly scripted and allows for very little creativity on the teacher’s part, and does not connect well with what students are tested on by the state — and the district is not listening to teachers’ concerns about this.” Her argument was echoed by Buchman, who noted that the emphasis on standardized testing, especially tying performance to salary, led to “teaching to the test.”
“Second graders are being taught how to fill in the bubble,” she said, even if they don’t fully understand multiple choice yet.
While Moseley believed “a lot is changing in education, and it’s really bizarre that it’s not one of the main issues of the election,” the results of the election, at both a local and national level, will affect Oklahoma. The failure of SQ 779 is the most obvious example. This question would have resulted in a one percent increase in the state sales tax, and 69.5 percent of that raise would have gone to an increase in teacher pay of $5,000 per person. Other portions went to higher education (19.25 percent), early childhood education (8 percent) and career tech (3.25 percent). Buchman was encouraged by the support for the proposal, saying that awareness of the issue was important for fixing it.
Tandy agreed that there were problems with SQ 779 and that “there would be a better way to adjust teacher pay, but it’s still unfortunate that it was defeated. I don’t know how long Oklahoma teachers are going to have to wait for a ‘better way’ that makes everyone happy, when they so desperately need more.”
Applegate hoped the election would make students “become much more politically and socially aware — that this isn’t the end of the world, that if students disagree with the way the country moves as result of this presidency they’re gonna have to get more involved and more politically active. It could be a good thing.” While Tandy, who described herself as a political moderate who avoids commenting on politics, said Donald Trump’s desire to reduce funding to the department of education has her concerned.
“While I agree that the money in the DoE is not spent wisely on our education system, we desperately need an overhaul of the public education system in order to catch up with other first-world countries who are light-years ahead of us,” she said.
As for the future of teaching and education in Oklahoma, those interviewed had some bleak hope. “I don’t see it changing anytime soon because it’s so down in the hole right now. To get back up where we need to be is gonna take a long time,” said Collins. Applegate recalled a former boss, a state superintendent, who said as she left, “‘we’re gonna burn the barn down before we have a chance to rebuild it’. I think we’re getting very close to that point.”
But all the elementary education majors emphasized that their love for teaching drives them. “People who are in the classroom love the kids, because they’re not getting paid, they’re not getting treated like professionals,” Moseley said. “Oklahoma will eventually come back,” Applegate said. To those who are in the process of becoming or want to become teachers, he said, “My message is just buckle down, work hard and we can move this state back to a functional state. If not, we’ll all just move somewhere else.”