The Teaching Sieve: The price of public service, part I
Low wages are contributing to an unprecedented teacher shortage in Oklahoma
A shortage of anything is inconvenient at best. With turkeys in scarce supply, some families made other plans for Thanksgiving dinner. When FluMist was out of stock this past fall, disappointed parents and children opted for flu shots.
But what happens when a shortage is more serious? What happens when a state is running out of teachers?
The answer is, it makes do — but with potentially devastating consequences.
For decades, teaching in Oklahoma has been one of the lowest-paid public professions. In 2012, the state ranked 44th in the country for average starting teacher salary — $31,606 compared to the national average of $36,141, according to Tulsa Public Schools.
Even when adjusted for cost of living (Tulsa’s is nearly 4 percent below the national average) Tulsa ranked 109 in teacher pay of 125 districts nationwide.
Across the country, fewer people are becoming teachers. Over the past four years, the number of high school graduates interested in education degrees or professions decreased 16 percent, according to TPS. In the past eight years, the number of Oklahoma teaching candidates declined 24 percent.
Although science, technology, math and engineering (STEM) are educational buzzwords these days, in 2014 Oklahoma colleges produced only four certified physics teachers, 14 certified science teachers and 74 certified math teachers, according to TPS.
The trend has prompted the University of Oklahoma to offer scholarships and forgive student loans for teaching graduates who commit to the state’s public schools for at least four years post-graduation.
TPS started the 2015-16 academic year with no teaching vacancies, but Chief Human Capital Officer Talia Shaull says that doesn’t mean each classroom had a certified teacher. In fact, 83 teaching positions have been filled with emergency certifications since the beginning of the school year.
When a district demonstrates it cannot find a qualified, certified teacher to fill a position, it can ask the Oklahoma Department of Education to issue an emergency teaching certificate. The individual receiving the emergency certificate must pass a test in the subject area but is not required to have classroom training nor a degree in the field.
For example, a district might request to hire a nurse to teach biology if no certified biology teachers can be found. However, all candidates must complete the selection process, which includes teaching a classroom lesson, according to Shaull. The district, state and universities also offer professional development to address inexperience with specific, skill-based learning.
Oklahoma’s reliance on emergency certificates has skyrocketed, jumping from 32 granted in 2011-12 to 977 by December 2015, according to State Superintendent of Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister. Approximately 1,000 teaching positions across the state still have not been filled.
“We need a certified, well-supported teacher in every classroom,” says Hofmeister, a former teacher herself. “When we don’t have that, it stalls momentum academically.”
Unfortunately, the problem is not expected to quickly improve. In January, the Oklahoma Board of Education announced $47 million in cuts to public education due to an approximately $102 million state budget shortfall. As a result, TPS reduced its spending for the 2015-16 school year by $2.1 million. A second round of statewide cuts is expected.
At a disadvantage
Even as Shaull’s department has ramped up teacher recruiting efforts in the past year — widening its net to other states and starting recruitment earlier in the year — without the funding to offer better compensation, TPS and other districts are fighting an uphill battle.
Oklahoma teaching graduates often are wooed by the surrounding states, all of which offer teachers higher starting wages, according to a recent analysis by Stand for Children, a grassroots education advocacy group.
Texas offers the most attractive teacher salaries regionally; teacher salaries in Oklahoma are 16 percent lower than teacher salaries in Texas, according to a 2015 study by the Oklahoma Business and Education Coalition (OBEC) and the Oklahoma State School Boards Association (OSSBA).
The legislature has not increased Oklahoma’s minimum salary schedule for teachers since the 2007-08 school year. Even worse, the state’s teachers do not receive raises in line with most other professions.
A worker with 10 years of experience in the private sector is likely to earn about 37 percent more than a teacher with the same experience, according to the OBEC/OSSBA study.
MIT’s Living Wage Calculator estimates it costs $42,970 annually to live in Tulsa County; however, it would take a teacher with a bachelor’s degree 17 years to reach that threshold, according to TPS. It would take the same teacher more than 27 years to earn the county’s median household income of $49,992.
Shaull says her team focuses recruitment strategies on what she perceives to be TPS’ strengths — the mentorship and many professional learning opportunities provided to first-year teachers and “a new superintendent with a desire to create effective educators” — but she’s not kidding herself.
“To be able to offer a competitive salary to teachers is huge,” Shaull says. “It doesn’t matter whether money is not a reason to go into education. It is unfathomable that we cannot pay teachers a living wage.”
Underpaid and undervalued
Retaining teachers is another battle fought by Oklahoma districts. About 17 percent of new teachers exit Oklahoma public schools after their first year in the classroom, compared to 11 percent of new teachers in Texas, according to the OBEC/OSSBA study. Attrition is highest in the first six years on the job.
Patti Ferguson-Palmer, president of the Tulsa Classroom Teachers Association, says expectations for teachers are at an all-time high, especially in lower-income schools, and many teachers burn out.
Within TPS, she says there is “a great sense of urgency. They are so desperate for something to work.”
Ferguson-Palmer says the district previously pushed a lot of “products,” including scripted curricula, in a one-size-fits-all approach that diminished teacher autonomy. But she is hopeful Superintendent Dr. Deborah Gist, a former elementary teacher, will help change that.
With 21 years of classroom teaching experience, Ferguson-Palmer pinpoints a general “lack of respect” as one of the top reasons teachers resign.
She says the attitude is evident even among state lawmakers.
“It’s this attitude that teachers don’t matter, kids don’t matter — except their kids,” she says.
The Oklahoma Education Association, the statewide voice of education professionals, has tried to combat this mentality with its program called G.L.E.E. (Giving Legislators an Educational Experience). The statewide program invites legislators to visit a classroom for one day to experience the challenges teachers and students face.
Ferguson-Palmer says she has seen the program improve communication between teachers and legislators such as Sen. Gary Stanislawski (R-Tulsa) and Rep. Katie Henke (R-Tulsa), who made changes to the Reading Sufficiency Act in 2014. The modifications lessened the impact of a single high-stakes reading test at the end of the year — a test that previously determined whether a child could advance to fourth grade.
Plans are in the works to expand G.L.E.E. to school board members and city councilors. In the meantime, Ferguson-Palmer encourages Tulsans — especially teachers — to make their voices known.
“Legislators have an obligation to listen to their constituents,” she says.
As the teacher shortage grows more urgent, some are proposing outside-the-box solutions.
Through the grassroots group Oklahoma’s Children — Our Future, OU President David L. Boren recently made headlines for his proposal of a statewide one-cent sales tax increase to fund education.
If approved by voters, the measure would generate approximately $600 million a year, providing a $5,000 pay raise for teachers, among other things. Opponents argue the increase would propel Oklahoma’s sales tax rate to the highest in the nation. However, Boren says the total tax burden on Oklahomans is one of the lowest in the nation, and polling data shows that a majority of Oklahomans would support the tax increase.
“We are lying to ourselves when we say there’s a ‘free lunch,’” he says of expecting educational improvements without paying for them. “Our parents and grandparents sacrificed for us, and we (supporters of the tax increase) feel like it’s our turn.
“I just feel it is a moral question,” Boren says. “Are we going to do right by our students and teachers or not?”
Superintendent Hofmeister has not announced her position on the proposed bill but applauds Boren for being solutions-minded.
“We need more ideas, not fewer,” says Hofmeister, who naturally has several of her own.
She proposed OKhigh5 in January 2015, which requested $5,000 in teacher raises and five additional days of instruction. The proposal did not move forward in the February-May 2015 legislative session. She is currently requesting in a budget addendum a $1,000 teacher pay increase.
Hofmeister’s Red Tape Task Force — a group of 51 education leaders and stakeholders — also began meeting in early November to review the existing education budget and make recommendations for reducing administrative costs.
Although Ferguson-Palmer agrees with a thorough review of the existing education budget, she thinks more is needed to meet the needs of Oklahoma teachers and students.
“We need a dedicated revenue stream,” she says, adding that the Oklahoma Lottery was never the answer.
In 2004, Oklahoma voters approved the lottery as a way to increase the state’s education revenue.
Since lottery funds were first appropriated by the legislature in 2005, the Department of Education has seen $30 million-$39 million per year added to education coffers. While that sounds substantial, lottery funds comprise approximately 1.3 percent of the state’s total education funds.
“The way the lottery was sold to us was as dessert, and the state was going to provide dinner,” Ferguson-Palmer says. “But the state cut dinner. The lottery was not intended to be a main revenue stream.”
In an effort to help recruit and retain new teachers despite budget shortfalls, the Tulsa, Jenks and Union school districts, in conjunction with Tulsa Technology Center, submitted proposals for the Vision 2025 sales tax renewal. If approved as part of the ballot measure, the proposals under consideration — called “Teach.Live.T-Town.” — would subsidize housing costs and provide professional development training for new teachers.
Gist says the housing proposal would refurbish a city-owned property in the Pearl District into affordable micro-loft rentals for new teachers. The project would cost approximately $7.5 million.
The teacher training is estimated to cost $3.7 million in the first year and $2.4 million in the second year and beyond.
“The reason we got together and put these proposals forward is that for the health of our city and economic development, there is nothing more important than the health of our public schools,” Gist says.
Many believe the way forward starts with recruiting and retaining certified teachers.
The OBEC/OSSBA study found that to match Oklahoma’s teacher attrition rate to that of Texas, teacher salaries in Oklahoma need to increase about 12 percent. To equalize attrition rates across low- and high-income schools, teachers in low-income schools should be paid about 50 percent more than other teachers to entice them to stay, the study suggests.
Ultimately, Ferguson-Palmer says teachers need to feel valued and empowered to do what they entered the field to do — make a difference.
“Until you make teaching attractive, people aren’t going to want to do it,” she says.
When district rebalancing — a result of lower-than-normal student enrollment and a shortage of teachers in Tulsa Public Schools — threatened to reduce the fourth-grade teaching staff at Eliot Elementary this past fall, a group of concerned parents took matters into their own hands.
“The loss of one of three fourth-grade teachers meant class sizes would have gone from approximately 20 to 30 or more,” says Carrie Gardenhire, a member of the Eliot PTA and the Eliot Elementary Foundation Board. “And, we were going to lose an amazing teacher.”
Through a crowdfunding account, the foundation raised $40,000 to cover the salary and benefits of fourth-grade science teacher Kristen Nicholson. Donors included Eliot alumni, students’ out-of-state relatives and even students themselves. They reached the goal in less than 24 hours.
Although the unorthodox measure was successful for Eliot and Nicholson, some feedback outside the midtown school has been mixed.
“I’m glad they were able to save (Nicholson’s) job, but every kid deserves small class sizes, not just the parents who can afford it,” says Patti Ferguson-Palmer, president of the Tulsa Classroom Teachers Association. “We need to be providing that to teachers out north and east. Zip code shouldn’t determine the quality of a child’s education.”
Gardenhire agrees and says Eliot’s fundraising was an opportunity to raise awareness about the urgency of funding needs at the state level. She says the board is cooperating with TPS in its communications with legislators to advocate for improvements in teacher pay and class size.
“We were very grateful to make an impact,” Gardenhire says. “We just want our kids to have the best, but it’s not just about our kids.”
For Nicholson, the generosity of the collective gift is difficult to comprehend despite the possibility that she might face the same threat this coming fall.
“I am just in a blessed position to get to stay at Eliot,” she says. “It was definitely in the interest of the students.”
How Oklahoma funds education
Where does Oklahoma get its funding for education? Oklahoma school districts receive funding from a variety of sources, including state, federal, county and local dollars. Although most local property taxes go directly to districts, some county- and state-dedicated and appropriated funding goes through a formula in order to calculate state aid. Seven streams of revenue go into the formula: state appropriation, property tax, motor vehicle collections, school land earnings, rural electrification association (REA) tax, county 4-mill and gross production tax.
How is education money allocated? The primary purpose of the funding formula is to provide equity to districts by adding weights for students with the highest needs — special education students, English Language Learners, low-income students, etc. — and also to provide equity across districts by “charging” certain factors against a district’s total allocation. For example, those districts with higher property tax income (local revenue) receive less in state-appropriated funding through the formula than other districts without as much local revenue but with similar student characteristics and weights.
Why is there a shortfall when it comes to educational funding? Oklahoma’s student population continues to grow, operating with about 33,000 more students today than in 2010. Compounded with a reduced revenue stream, that means the formula funds must be spread thinner.