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Can the Worst State for Teacher Pay Overcome Its Reputation?


Last year, we reported in this blog that Oklahoma was poised to become the worst state for teacher pay. 

That's still the case. But there is one in-state school network that's paying teachers more than double and sometimes triple the $31,600 salary of a first-year teacher in Oklahoma. EPIC, the largest virtual charter school in the state uses high salaries from $63,000 on up to $106,000 to attract teachers and keep up with skyrocketing enrollment growth.

EPIC can't solve every educator's pay problems though. The charter received 4,000 applications for just 457 (and counting) job openings, reported Tulsa World

The two teachers interviewed for the article are still new at EPIC so they don't make as much as the average teacher at the charter. Still, they pull in up to $500 more each month than they did in public schools—that is, enough to make ends meet. One of the teachers was able to give up a second job at the mall. The fact that they both have the potential to earn even more money in the future makes them feel more respected.

Still, there's the question of quality when it comes to education at cyber charters. Benjamin Herold reported in Education Week that well over a billion taxpayer dollars go into the sector each year, and overwhelmingly poor results keep coming out. As it happens, EPIC has earned low report card grades from the state over the years. In 2016, the charter network's elementary and middle school each earned a D-plus  based on students' standardized test scores in reading, math, and other subjects, and on other factors including attendance and graduation rate. The high school scored a C.

Oklahoma's Teacher-Pay Problem

EPIC's performance is not particularly promising as an antidote to the state's many problems in the K-12 arena. As Daarel Burnette reported in Education Week, the collapse of the state's oil industry has created a billion-dollar budget deficit, and the state's legislators in recent years have made sharp cuts to K-12 spending, resulting in overcrowded classrooms, cuts to extracurricular programs, and, in some cases, a four-day school week. Teachers are now even eligible for charity. Meanwhile, the state's teacher shortage is worsening.

It's no wonder teachers are packing up and leaving the Sooner State. Theresa Cullen, associate professor of education at the University of Oklahoma, has been studying teacher flight in the state. She recently surveyed 250 teachers who were leaving Oklahoma and found higher pay was the lure: $19,000 more on average. Taken together, the respondents were pulling in about $4.5 million more in their new states than they did in Oklahoma.

The state is a sitting duck for recruiters from school districts across the country who are on the hunt for teachers and able to offer higher salaries. Last summer, North Carolina's Guilford County Schools set up camp in Oklahoma City for a two-day teacher recruiting event, dangling five-figure salary bumps for educators willing to make the move 1,000 miles east to Greensboro, N.C. Neighboring Texas also claims a lot of Oklahoma teachers and last year famously nabbed the state's 2016 teacher of the year, Shawn Sheehan, along with his teacher wife. The two together earn $40,000 more per year than they did in Oklahoma. 

"I'm sorry it's come to this, but I will leave with my head held high," Sheehan wrote in what amounts to a breakup letter with Oklahoma on his blog. "I poured my heart and soul into my teaching at Norman High School. I represented our state at the highest level. I tried to help find funding sources via SQ 779 [i.e., a proposed one-cent increase in the state sales tax]. 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. We could stay, but it would cost our familyspecifically our sweet baby girl."

The end result: Oklahoma has increasingly relied on emergency certified teachers to fill job openings. (Read Madeline Will's report on how districts across the country have gotten creative in order to fill teacher roles.) 

Hope on the Horizon?

There are a couple potential rays of hope for Oklahoma teachers in their quest for higher wages. For one, a proposed state question that could land on the November ballot seeks to give teachers a $4,000 pay raise, according to the Associated Press. The aim is to raise the rate on new oil wells from 2 to 7 percent. (An oil and gas company is fighting the question, though, calling the proposal "unconstitutional and unclear.")

Teachers also appear to have a champion in Republican Gov. Mary Fallin. She has warned lawmakers earlier this month that she will veto any budget proposal that does not include a pay raise for teachers. Now the question is: Will lawmakers heed her call?

 Image: Getty

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