Recently, a report from the Legislative Office of Fiscal Transparency released a report on Oklahoma teacher salaries, claiming they are the “highest in the region.” Serving on the LOFT Legislative Oversight Committee and attending the presenting of the report, I believe the report has flaws and, more importantly, falls short.
Even if our teacher salaries were the region’s highest (which they aren’t), salary is not the reason our degreed, accredited teachers are exiting in droves. Salary is only one of many components for satisfaction in the workplace.
Keeping our most talented, experienced teachers is critical to our ability to educate our children. Right now, our teacher pipeline is in crisis.
When Oklahoma’s teachers and parents came en masse to the Capitol in 2018 pushing for additional education funding, it was never just about salaries. For more than a decade, the state cut public education funding. It wasn’t unusual for classrooms to have few and outdated textbooks. Teachers then and now buy their own supplies.
We may have given them a raise at that time, but we still haven’t increased classroom funding to fix the other problems. How would you like to work in an environment where the tools provided were woefully inadequate?
An unacceptable student/teacher ratio, particularly in core subjects, must be addressed. Most students need teacher connection and personalized attention to be successful. But in a classroom where teachers are stretched thin, many students get shortchanged.
That is our fault.
Oklahoma’s student population has dramatically shifted in demographics. A growing number of working poor (led by a shift to lower-level service jobs), a proliferation of single-parent families, food insecurity and one of the highest levels of adverse childhood experiences (ACES) are now predominant factors facing schools.
We rank 50th in the percentage of households with at least one child under age 3 considered food insecure, 46th in children without health insurance and 41st in percentage of children under age 3 living in households with incomes below the federal poverty level.
Oklahoma City and Tulsa Public Schools have a vast majority of students qualifying for free or reduced priced lunch. Stressed families make it difficult for teachers to do their best work, particularly when those educators aren’t supported.
Our ratio of school counselors to students is abysmal. We know today’s student population ranks high in disorders such as anxiety and depression, in addition to many lacking basic needs. This means access to counselors is critical. However, we have chosen not to fund an adequate amount of counselors.
The nationally recommended counselor-to-student ratio is 1 to 250. Oklahoma stands at about one counselor for every 450 students. That means students who need counseling, and there’s lot of them, either don’t get any or get it from their teachers.
Teachers aren’t trained to be certified school counselors, and they have enough on their plate already.
A general cultural shift has altered attitudes toward student discipline, with many parents no longer deferring to an educator’s authority. It makes classroom management even more difficult.
A growing disrespect of educators is being felt across the state, and much of it lies with us legislators. We have placed an inordinate amount of pressure on schools to achieve in standardized testing and do more and more data collection.
Sen. Dewayne Pemberton, my colleague on the LOFT committee and a long-time teacher and administrator, said it well: “Unfunded mandates. I see it every year. We pass laws then we don’t fund those laws so basically we fill up a book of laws but we don’t actually get anything accomplished.”
The teacher pay structure must be examined more closely. Teachers are given little financial incentive to seek higher levels of training or education, such as a doctorate or master’s degree. Their pay remains flat compared to a new teacher.
Bottom line: Poverty, stressed families and children, a lack of classroom resources, unacceptable ratios of teachers and counselors to students, a lack of respect for the teaching profession, and you’ve got a messy, complex can of worms.
Having a high-quality, free public education is critical to our financial success and having a solid employer workforce. Right now, our education system is looking like the fading canary in a toxic coal mine.
We need leadership that recognizes the complexity of this issue and brings together all the stakeholders to fix it without finger pointing.
Rep. Meloyde Blancett has represented District 78 in the Oklahoma House since 2016.