Election Results Are The Final Straw For Some Oklahoma Teachers

Nov 22, 2016

Oklahoma’s teacher shortage may get worse before it gets better. State Question 779, which some hailed as a solution to Oklahoma’s education funding woes, failed on Election Day. Many of the teachers running for office were also defeated. These losses have left some Oklahoma educators feeling hopeless.

Shawna Mott-Wright, the vice president of the Tulsa Public Schools teacher's union, said State Question 779 was the straw that broke the camel's back.

"Teachers are heartbroken," she said. 

State Question 779 was the big great hope for a $5,000 teacher pay raise. A one-cent sales tax would have funded the raises, but Oklahomans voted no.

When the measure failed, Mott-Wright sent out a straw poll asking her teachers how they were feeling.

"And 18 immediately responded that they were leaving," she said. 

State Question 779 was proposed as a solution to Oklahoma's low teacher pay, and teacher shortage. Teacher pay in the state is some of the lowest in the nation, and hundreds of teachers have left the classroom to find more money elsewhere. Or they've moved out of state. This has forced the state Department of Education to issue more than 1,500 emergency teaching certifications over the past few years, and has left many classrooms over crowded. 

SOME TEACHERS CAN'T AFFORD TO STAY

Shelby Eagan is going to stay for the rest of the year, but then that’s it. She's taught at Mitchell Elementary for four years and has a Master’s degree, but only brings home $1,800 dollars a month. She's got a lot of debt from college and works multiple jobs to pay all of her bills. She said things would be a lot easier if she moved to Missouri where she can make $11,000 more per year.

She hasn't made the leap yet, because she likes it here.

"I love my kids," she said. "I love my school. I have a very supportive union that supports me."

She was also holding out for State Question 779. But when it failed, she made up her mind to leave.

"Like I knew that having any kind of a raise was not possible," she said. "I just knew I couldn’t stay. I just can’t afford to stay."

Eagan admits 779 wasn’t the best plan. And she knows that’s why a lot of Oklahomans didn’t vote for it. She heard the cries for the legislature to "do it’s job." But Eagan doesn’t trust the legislature.

"How are they going to give us a raise? There’s no money."

She’s heard that Senator David Holt is proposing a plan for $10,000 teacher raises. But again, she’s not holding her breath.

"It’s just a really nice thing to say. Oh, we’re going to try to give you a raise. He can put that bill out. It’s never going to see the light of day," she said. 

LEGISLATIVE SOLUTION

Senator Holt said despite Oklahoma’s struggling economy teacher raises will be the highest priority of the legislature this year. He said people are already working hard to find a solution.

"There have been a lot of ideas," he said. "And I mean legitimate ideas. Not pie in the sky ideas."

Holt put out a plan last year, but it didn’t make it very far. The legislature had a $1.3 billion budget hole to fill, so funding teacher pay raises was a stretch. There will be a hole this year, too, but it’s expected to be smaller.

Holt said funding raises will come with tough choices. The legislature will need more revenue—and that may come from expanding the sales tax to things that are currently exempt. He also said his plan will likely include school district consolidation.

"It’s going to take time to do this right. And to come up with well thought out proposals that have evidence-based support," he said. "Nobody thought 779 was going to fail, to be honest with you."

A LACK OF TRUST

Proponents of State Question 779 say the proposal was a way to circumvent the legislature. But now that teacher raises are back in lawmaker’s hands, education advocates have a new rallying cry on social media and it’s directed right at those in the State Capitol. It’s #PassAPlan.  

Chelsey Wilson has taught at Putnam City North High School for nine years. She said she was upset when SQ779 failed, but she's not going to leave because of it.

"It’s not the student's fault," Wilson said.  "They still need to be educated and I’m still there to do that. That's my job—no matter what I get paid."

Other teachers, however, say leaving the state is a matter of principle. 

Dallas Koehn has been teaching at Union High School in Tulsa for 17 years, and said this year is his last. 

Koehn said teachers keep sucking it up, and sucking it up, and that enables the legislature to keep hurting education.

"We’re gonna go to a four day week, three day week, two day week. We're gonna have 40 kids in a class. We’re gonna buy our own paper, we're gonna bring our own pencils. So that the state and the legislature doesn’t have to really feel the consequences of their decisions. We’re gonna keep eating the consequences."

And Koehn said things won’t change if teachers keep doing that.

"And so I’m washing my hands of it… I hope I’m wrong," he said. "I hope something big comes through. I hope there’s a change in the winds. But I don’t expect it."