Teacher pay and school accountability were among the biggest topics discussed during a community forum Wednesday evening tackling issues facing Oklahoma public-school teachers.
A panel of educators, joined by other teachers and representatives from education and public-policy groups in the audience, talked about the challenges they see in schools and classrooms on a daily basis.
The forum at a downtown Tulsa restaurant was sponsored by Oklahoma Watch, a nonprofit journalism organization. Several dozen attended, including leaders such as Tulsa Public Schools Superintendent Keith Ballard.
Teachers spoke in sometimes emotional and insistent tones about the struggles they face in coping with some of the lowest salaries in the nation and dealing with the increasing demands of the classroom. The message from guest panelists and many questioners often boiled down to a plea to state policymakers and lawmakers for more recognition of their value, in the form of better pay, a voice in decisions and support in tackling tough school issues that are not of their making.
The panelists in the forum were two Tulsa teachers and a principal: Estella Bitson, principal at Hawthorne Elementary School; Meredith Brown, a sixth grade teacher at Disney Elementary School; and Dallas Koehn, a history and social studies teacher at Union Public Schools’ 9th Grade Center.
Brown, who has been teaching for two and a half years, said low pay has been a hot-button topic for her and other young teachers. Oklahoma has the third lowest average salary in the nation, and lowest salary in the seven-state region.
“The hardest part is I have no savings,” Brown said. “I don’t have a backup for anything. My paycheck – I cover my bills, but there isn’t anything extra … If I need new tires, I’m in trouble.”
Bitson said Oklahoma needs to find a way to pay teachers better, especially because many are leaving the field for better-paying jobs.
Many who don’t quit have to moonlight at second jobs in order to cover rent and bills.
Bitson highlighted a teacher on her staff whom Bitson ran into at a restaurant, Olive Garden, where the teacher was waiting tables as a second job.
“It makes me sick to my stomach. We must value and respect our teachers,” Bitson said. “My teacher shouldn’t have to be at Olive Garden when he should be home with his family.”
Those same teachers often dig into their own pockets for classroom supplies or to get clothes and other personal items for their students. They also take on expanded roles inside and outside the classroom in order to help students deal with personal issues that can detract from their education.
Bitson cited as an example a teacher who used her own money to buy gym shoes for a student.
Hawthorne Elementary has a high rate of low-income students.
“Our students have so many obstacles from their home environment,” she said. “There’s a lot of crime factors that our students are faced with. Not only are we teachers, we’re social workers, we’re counselors.”
The lower pay compared with neighboring states like Texas and Arkansas makes it harder to recruit and retain teachers in Oklahoma, panelists and visitors said.
Koehn said a good teacher struggling to stay afloat financially might have little reason to stay in Oklahoma, where the starting minimum teacher salary is $31,600.
“The biggest question isn’t whether I make more or go on a cruise. The biggest question with finances is how many Merediths can we get, how many good teachers can we get into the classroom,” he said, referring to Brown.
Ballard said there is a need for more education funding in Oklahoma. The state also ranks third lowest in the nation in per-pupil funding.
Asked what he would do with additional funding, Ballard said more money would go a long way in the classroom.
“If we had any more money, it would primarily go to more positions teaching, teacher aid positions and higher salaries for teachers,” he said.
Relatively low state and teacher salaries are not new in Oklahoma.
David Blatt, executive director of the research group Oklahoma Policy Institute, which advocates for more education funding, said Oklahoma has periodically allocated the resources to improve teacher pay. The problem is the state has not been consistent with its funding.
While the state Legislature may boost salaries one year, pay typically tapers off in the following years.
“I don’t know there’s a single good reason for it,” Blatt said of the lower pay. “There’s been an overall disrespect for education in this state. We have seen budget problems and a tax situation that’s in utter shambles at this time.”
Brown said she did not get into the profession for the money, but added she needs to be able to financially support herself.
The salary issue coincides with an increased demand for teacher and student accountability, and what Brown believes is a lack of appreciation and respect from some members of the public.
“I just want to be treated like a professional,” Brown said. “I swear I know what I’m doing. I’m not your babysitter. I’m working very hard.”
In addressing student testing and teacher evaluations, Koehn said teachers are skeptical about how the data is being used.
Oklahoma is implementing a teacher evaluation system that will use student test scores as one of the ways to determine how effective a teacher is. The state also has an A-F grading system for schools that relies on student test scores and improvement among the bottom 25 percent of struggling students.
The A-F school grading system has especially drawn the ire of educators, who have called the measure flawed.
“We’re not against accountability,” Koehn said. “We’re a little skeptical about the tools that are being used … There are those that would suspect we are not really trying to hold schools accountable. It’s like we are trying to label schools as failures so we can promote an agenda.”