June 23, 2017
This has been a bittersweet time as my 28 years of teaching physics at Bartlesville High School has drawn to a close. In July I’ll being working at the district’s Education Service Center, overseeing its technology and communications efforts. Since I announced this change back in April 2016, various colleagues, alumni, and parents have repeatedly said it was a shame I was leaving the classroom. But they often throw in that they are glad I’ll be staying in the district.Frankly, it is quite tempting for all Oklahoma teachers to not only leave the classroom, but leave the state altogether. The Republican-controlled state government only found the political courage to raise enough fees and taxes to hold the state common education budget flat for 2017-2018, which means there will be nothing, absolutely nothing, to address our abysmal teacher salaries and record teacher shortage. A generation of Oklahoma schoolchildren are receiving an inadequate education:
- The state teacher salary schedule has not been increased since 2008; Oklahoma teacher salaries are once again 49th in the nation. Even after adjusting for our state’s low cost of living, an Oklahoma teacher would still need a raise of over $6,000 to match the spending power of the typical U.S. teacher. That means we’re being paid about 88% of what the average teacher makes nationwide even after the cost of living is accounted for. The average teaching salary in Texas is over $6,000 higher than in Oklahoma, and the starting pay there is up to $20,000 higher.
- Oklahoma has cut its state per pupil spending by 27% since 2008, far more than any other state in the nation and almost twice that of the next most reckless state, Alabama.
- 1 in 5 Oklahoma school districts have gone to 4-day school weeks in a desperate effort to attract and retain teachers and cut costs; that could approach 1 in 4 in 2017-2018.
- More than 7% of Oklahoma’s students are taught by emergency certified teachers, ones with little to no teaching experience or teacher training for their subject. We’d be sunk without these folks who are willing to try, but their lack of preparation for the demanding profession is often quite hard on them and their students. Their numbers have risen to over 30 times what it was five years ago:
- 2011-2012: 32 emergency certifications
- 2012-2013: 98 emergency certifications
- 2013-2014: 189 emergency certifications
- 2014-2015: 506 emergency certifications
- 2015-2016: 1,063 emergency certifications; 1,530 teaching positions eliminated
- 2016-2017: 1,160 emergency certifications; about 900 positions left unfilled
The local impact of the state government’s lack of support for schools has been dramatic. Last June we were forced to cut the district’s budget by $1.9 million, including $1.6 million in cuts by eliminating 39 positions, which included 21 teachers. Bartlesville Public Schools will suffer $900,000 in unplanned state funding cuts in 2017 due to repeated revenue failures. For two years the state has failed to provide the money it promised in its budget, so we have little faith that the supposedly flat budget for 2017-2018 won’t be a third fiasco.
Teachers are voting with their feet
These despairing statistics are translating into teachers voting with their feet by walking out of the profession or walking across state lines to teach where their efforts will be more adequately compensated. Recently it was announced that Oklahoma’s 2016 Teacher of the Year, Shawn Sheehan, and his wife are leaving Oklahoma, joining an ever-growing exodus of teachers to Texas:
I represented our state at the highest level. I tried to help find funding sources via (State Question) 779. I ran for state Senate. I started a nonprofit focused on teacher recruitment and retention that has spread nationwide. I’ve done everything I know how to do to try and make things better.-Shawn Sheehan, 2016 Oklahoma Teacher of the Year, who is leaving for Texas
Mr. Sheehan gave up on Oklahoma because of the government’s unwillingness to improve school funding and how he and his wife will each earn far more teaching in Texas than they do here. Who can blame him? Take a look at the difference in their salary schedules. He’ll make more in his first year there than he could ever make in Norman.
But when teachers cite the higher pay in every neighboring state, many folks caution, “But the cost of living is higher there too.” Well, let’s explore that. The map below shows that much of Oklahoma and Texas are comparable, but the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex is noticeably higher. It is time for some calculations, something I presume math teacher Sheehan already did in making his decision.The Tulsa World has created a nifty online database of Oklahoma teacher salaries, so we can try to analyze the Sheehans’ financial situation. From the published data, they would earn at least a 45% increase in pay for the two of them by moving to Lewisville. Their cost of living in the Dallas metro, where Lewisville is located, will be 18% higher than in Norman for families with children like the Sheehans. Housing is much more expensive there, for example. But they will still enjoy at least a 27% increase in spending power, which is over $20,000 per year for them. Plus he reported that his teaching load will be dramatically different, changing from 150 algebra students per day in Norman to only 69 students per day under Lewisville’s block schedule.
So I don’t blame the Sheehans for giving up on Oklahoma and moving to Texas. With six and four years experience, they are still in their early years of teaching and just had their first child. Mr. Sheehan has described himself as a military brat who was adopted from the Phillipines into an Irish-American family. So he did not grow up here. His wife is from Owasso, so her family there was a tie helping hold them in Oklahoma until now, but the siren song of Texas salaries is simply too loud for them to ignore any longer.
Should I stay or should I go?
Should I stay or should I go now? (Me entra frio por los ojos)
If I go there will be trouble (Si me voy va a haber peligro)
And if I stay it will be double (Si me quedo va a ser doble)
So you gotta let me know
Should I stay or should I go
That song by The Clash resounds in my head, just as it has for Shawn. This year has been very rough for Wendy and me. Teaching physics while handling STEM, district communications, and the student computing initiative meant I had 60-to-80-hour work weeks that left little time for hiking or blogging. Wendy stuck it out for one last year in Special Education, which also was quite rough for various reasons. So we’re exhausted.
No matter what, we’re both changing jobs this summer. If we stay in Bartlesville, I’ll become a district administrator, swapping the ridiculous extra work hours I’ve endured during the school year for year-round administrative work. If we stay, Wendy will be pioneering a new course where students repair Chromebooks and support the use of instructional technology. But she will lose the 5% salary increment she previously earned by teaching in Special Education. So with so much change coming anyway, why not just pack up and leave?
My first year teaching was in 2001 in Houston, TX. I made as much money that first year as I did after many years of teaching in Oklahoma. I taught 4th grade in Texas, a grade when state testing was a big deal. After that first extremely difficult year in Houston, I fled back to Oklahoma. Everything was more laid back here.
Then the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) turned every state into a high-stakes testing hell. Elementary teaching opportunities dried up after my second successful year of teaching. I went through a reduction in force and, in order to have a teaching job, I tested to become a special education teacher. I continued taking more training and various certification exams so that I could be deemed “highly qualified” under NCLB. So I taught high school level special ed classes at Okmulgee High school for 4 years.
After I moved to Bartlesville, state testing for students evolved into a monster. I had many meetings related to special education students not being able to graduate because they didn’t pass the right exams, too often with limited accommodations on those exams for their disabilities. We had very long and quite specific meetings on remediation even as state resources dried up.
So over the years, I’ve become disgusted with the state of Oklahoma education, and at times I’ve thought, “This is getting to be as bad as Houston. Why am I still doing this for a living?”
I never expected teaching would make me rich. But I certainly never expected to be screwed over so badly. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve pondered taking an alternate career outside of education – maybe something related to computers since I’ve had a few years of experience working in that field.
But change is scary, and that is one reason some teachers have stayed in Oklahoma. Many have a set routine and don’t want to disrupt it by packing up everything and starting over in a new state. Many teachers are also very dedicated folks; it is hard for them to walk out. They care about the kids in their community. Too often, that dedication keeps teachers in a place that isn’t the best for themselves. Many teachers are also selfless. They put up with much more abuse than other professionals would.
So I’m thankful to have an opportunity to get back into the technology arena and help students acquire skills they can use in their future careers.
Granger’s reasons for staying
My scientific bent leads me to analyze the primary factors for us to keep working in our Oklahoma public school district. In increasing order of importance, they are money, service, and community.
I analyzed the monetary impact on us if Wendy and I followed the Sheehans, and so many other Oklahoma teachers, to Texas. With 28 years of teaching experience, I would be near the top of our local salary schedule in 2017-2018. I also have been earning a career-high extra duty pay by working like the devil for chairing the STEM department, chairing the science department through December 2016, being district and site webmaster, being a site technology assistant, handling district communications, and heading up the student computing initiative.
By earning a 38% increase in pay through far too many extra duties, I am actually earning more in Bartlesville than I would in Lewisville, even before the cheaper cost-of-living here is accounted for. The extra duties are what make the difference. Without them, I’d earn 32% more in Lewisville than in Bartlesville, with a real increase in spending power of 15% after adjusting for the cost of living.Recognizing that my enormous extra duty workload is lucrative but unsustainable, I’m actually shifting to a high-level administrative position in our district. I’ll have to work about 235 days vs. my current 181-day teaching contract, earning about 30% more than I did in 2016-2017 for a 30% increase in required work days. So I’d actually see my pay drop by 27% if I gave that up to go teach in Lewisville with no extra duties.
Wendy, however, will actually lose money by staying at Bartlesville High School next school year and leaving Special Education. She could earn a whopping 50% more teaching in Lewisville vs. what she will earn in Bartlesville. That would still be a huge increase in spending power after adjusting for the cost of living.
As a married couple, it makes financial sense for us to stay in Bartlesville because my administrative salary will make up for the teaching pay differential between here and Lewisville. However, there is another financial consideration. I’m eligible this summer for early retirement in Oklahoma’s teacher pension system, so I could take early retirement and draw that while teaching in Texas, and then “double-dip” with a second pension when I retired in Texas.
So I might still need another reason to stay…and I actually have two more which are more important to me than money.
Oklahoma needs our helpThe next reason is epitomized by David Boren, a former Oklahoma governor and U.S. senator and now the long-term successful president of the University of Oklahoma. Thirty-three years ago my parents and I visited him in his U.S. Senate office in Washington, D.C. when I was named one of Oklahoma’s U.S. Presidential Scholars. We vividly recall how when we met him, he was so animated and interested in education.
No doubt Senator Boren was pleased to hear back in 1984 that I would be attending OU, and perhaps because of that connection David Boren looked me in the eye and said that I had a personal obligation, as a top student, to make the most of myself and my education, and serve my home state in some capacity after I graduated.
That personal appeal and his barely contained enthusiasm for education meant more to me than all the trite remarks I’d heard in speeches over the years, including President Reagan’s remarks to us in the Rose Garden earlier that week. Boren spoke to my Sooner soul, telling me that an education is a debt due from our state’s present to its future generations.And what an example he has set. At our visit in 1984 he spoke at length about how important education was to building up Oklahoma, making this impoverished state a better place to live. Back then he was just developing what would become the Oklahoma Foundation for Excellence, which would go on to recognize and support thousands of our state’s best high school seniors and scores of its top teachers and administrators, including giving me a wonderful teaching award 20 years later. After his distinguished political career, he went to OU, and in his first ten years there helped raise over $10 billion in private gifts for the school. In 2016 he led the fight to try to raise the state sales tax by a penny to fund higher teacher salaries and other educational needs. He has always fought for our schools and worked hard to attract and retain academic talent in our state.
I believe in and share in this cause. I have had a direct and prolonged influence on thousands of students. The pay has been atrocious, but the personal rewards have been immense. And I’ve given my all to my district, working in many different capacities over the decades. I chaired the science department for 20 years, helped with win-win contract bargaining for 18 years, ran websites for over a dozen years, promoted many successful bond issues and worked to ensure the funds were well spent, helped secure a $1.7 million STEM grant from Phillips 66, and served on a bewildering array of committees large and small. Working in a school district means that every day I’m serving our students, our city, and our state. I can always feel proud of what I do.
I still believe in Oklahoma and want to keep on fighting to help it build a better future. But its miserable politics and self-destructive voters make that quite difficult. So I need another reason to stay, and I have it…in spades.
Bartlesville is a great place to work and to live
Back in the summer of 1989 I was choosy about my job search. I did not even apply in the two largest districts of Oklahoma City and Tulsa, knowing those urban cores had challenges I did not care to tackle as a rookie. And I turned down job offers from Moore, Ponca City, and Sapulpa, holding out for my goal of a job teaching physics all day. Thankfully Bartlesville opened up, and I knew to not let the old and inadequate facilities at the high school at that time deter me. I’d worked in Scholars Programs at OU and knew Bartlesville was a powerhouse producer of National Merit Scholars.
Living in a town of only 35,000 people was quite an adjustment for me, having been raised in the Oklahoma City metro area with its population of about one million. I was no longer anonymous and quickly learned that if I wanted any privacy in my social life that required a 45-minute drive south to Tulsa. But I thrived in this small city, and what a unique place it was and is in Oklahoma.
No other small city in this state can boast the quality blend of attractions and the mix of scientific and artistic opportunities Bartlesville has to offer. This reflects its corporate history as the birthplace and longtime headquarters of Phillips Petroleum and other firms. Thanks to that history, we have Woolaroc along with the architectural wonders of the Price Tower and the Bartlesville Community Center. During my first weeks in town in 1989 I was surprised to find a local astronomy club offering a public telescope viewing of the heavens. The next summer I discovered the marvelous OK Mozart festival and its many showcase features outside of the concerts.
That Bartlesville blend of the scientific with the artistic has held true for decades. For years the research center on the west edge of the city hosted a wonderful science teachers conference for all of northeast Oklahoma, and it has sponsored the greatest district science fair in the state for decades. Our Community Center is home to events like OK Mozart, the local symphony, touring broadway shows, a series of community concerts, and more. So this little city is very special.Bartlesville’s size, it turned out, was just right for my career. The city and the district are large enough to offer comprehensive services, yet small enough that hard-working individuals can readily make quite evident contributions and be valued for their efforts. I have been blessed every year with classes of gifted students raised by wonderful parents. Sure, there are always a few challenging ones, just as there are always a few stinkers on any school faculty. But I have always been valued and appreciated by my students, their parents, and my colleagues. Our school district is a great place to work if you are willing to work hard and invest in it, as you will have the opportunity to make a difference and help shape its future. Sure, my liberal politics do not jive with most of the voters here or just about anywhere else in Oklahoma, but I’ve found that my fellow Bartians (yes, that is what we are called) are willing to raise their taxes and invest in their schools once we make a good case to them for why it is important and worthwhile. They have proven their resilience time and again through corporate moves, mergers, and downsizing. This is a little city that still believes in its future and is willing to invest in it. Its citizens will not let it dry up and blow away like too many other places in Oklahoma. It even has a sense of humor, despite taking itself rather seriously.
Sure, I wish we had a better selection of restaurants. And our shopping choices are not as diverse as in Owasso. But we can boast a thriving and historic downtown, not just strip malls and big box stores.Bartlesville has a strong sense of its history, its character, and of place. It is not a bedroom community that could be swapped with any other; it is a unique and interesting place to live and work. I’ve built a life here, am a valued part of this community, and enjoy contributing to and benefiting from living here. I would never have that sense of making a difference, nor of being a meaningful part of the community dynamic, in a metropolis like Dallas. And the longest possible commute in our city is 20 minutes. Take that, metroplexes!
So Wendy and I are staying, we’re building our new shared life together here, and we’ll continue to invest in our schools and our community. I still believe in Bartlesville and, bless its heart, what I often tease as Joklahoma. Right now it feels like Broklahoma, but I’m ready and willing to stay and work on fixing it.
A final lesson
How about you? Are you willing to roll up your sleeves and work to change our miserable politics? On my last day in the classroom I shared something with my last batch of students; something I hoped they might take with them.
I shared with them a few stories from my life. I spoke of a few times that I was unhappy with my circumstances or my prospects, and how I dealt with them. This was to teach them a lesson life has taught me:
You seldom get what you want by complaining, by posting about things on Facebook or clicking a Like button, by giving up on the system, or by breaking the rules. Instead, you must become the change you want. You must invest yourself in the system and work from within to change it. Bring something to the table, be willing to listen, and be willing to work. Don’t give up on voting, but also don’t just vote; organize and campaign. Don’t disengage; entangle yourself. Don’t break things; build them better. You’ll be surprised at how much you can accomplish if you are willing to work.
So how about you? Are you willing to join us and work for a better Oklahoma?