BY DAVID PERRYMAN
George Strait was probably not thinking about the lure of higher wages and the ensuing migration of Oklahoma teachers to Texas when he released the 1987 hit named All My Exes Live in Texas. However, that statement could be made by an alarming number of Oklahoma schoolchildren regarding former teachers whose economic reality of low pay pushed them to make the move for the benefit of their families and their personal futures.
The temptation could not have been greater. Huge billboards in Tulsa, OKC, Stillwater and Norman beckoned teachers to find their future in a Fort Worth. The message promised starting salaries of $52,000 at a time when the averageteacher pay in Oklahoma was in the low $40,000s and the hope of a salary in excess of $50,000 was not on the radar, even after a decade or two in the classroom.
The reality of a teacher’s life was that in the decade prior to 2018, Oklahoma’s K-12 education had been cut by 28%, the deepest of any state in the nation. Low wages, continuing cuts and a lack of professional respect plagued those who had chosen to educate our state’s children.
Thus, it was no surprise that, first, border district educators and, then, those from across the state took neighboring states up on their offer. It takes a lot to make a person with the heart of an educator leave their family, their community and their state, but Oklahoma legislators had neglected and cut and isolated our state’s teachers to the point that many took the only path to protection that they could find – and that involved leaving Oklahoma’s classrooms.
In 2018, pro-public education legislators faced an uphill battle. “Everyone” agreed with them that teachers needed a raise, but few were willing to stand with them to identify and act on a source of revenue to pay for those raises. Repeatedly, teachers were told that the state could not afford to give them a raise, despite the fact that annually hundreds of millions of dollars in tax breaks and credits were being given to the oil and gas industry.
The public pressure intensified and the oil and gas industry saw an organized attempt to increase the Gross Production Tax to 7% to 9% so that it would be in line with most other energy producing states. In response, the industry gathered a mostly anti-public education group to formulate what they called the StepUp Plan to “resolve Oklahoma’s education crisis.”
In reality, it was just a strong-arm attempt to set their own tax rate, cap the GPT at an embarrassingly low 4%, throw teachers a bone and relieve public pressure.
Despite that attempt, pro-education legislators were able to push through a 5% GPT bill that for the first time in 10 years not only gave teachers a legitimate raise, but also provided raises to support staff and put an additional $50 million into textbooks and the classroom.
Teacher morale is improving, but it will take years to reverse the damage. Because a veto referendum lawsuit that tried to void the 5% GPT bill was not dismissed before teachers had to make final plans for this school year, 57% of the state’s superintendents say that the teacher shortage is worse this year than last, and, in fact, the state had issued a record 2,153 emergency certifications by the end of September, according to a survey conducted by the Oklahoma State School Board Association.
Because Oklahoma teachers’ salaries have been so low, for so long, I also predict that because of the impact of a belated salary increase, there could be an even greater exodus in three or four years due to retirement benefit computations based on their increased salary. Who can blame them?
–Chickasha’s David Perryman serves District 56 in the Oklahoma House and is House Democratic Floor Leader