Elementary, My Dear Watson: 8 Solutions for Oklahoma Lawmakers

Educators face many similar challenges throughout the United States and across the world. This week, however, I want to address some issues close to home. Perhaps they will apply to other states as well.
Twenty-one years ago, I was a new teacher. Like any new venture, my first year was a tough one. My second was better. And by my third year, I felt like I was finding my groove.

However, it did not take me long to realize that other teachers who were flourishing in the profession were often leaving it for other work or moving out of state. Many were frustrated by our state’s lack of competitive wages and compensation.

As I watched, I thought, “Gee, this is not sustainable. Surely, Oklahoma lawmakers will find a solution to this problem over the next few years.”

Unfortunately, I was naïve, and twenty-one years later, we are facing even greater teacher shortages across the state. In many ways, the challenges seem more daunting.

Oklahoma Watch recently summarized the current state of affairs. (Read and listen to the report here.) One young teacher, who was interviewed explained that her income placed her $12 a above the bracket that would have qualified her for food stamps. “They [state lawmakers] pay us like teaching is a hobby,” she explained.

Our state lawmakers have recessed for summer vacation, and state school leaders are collectively sighing with relief that elected officials did not cut funding to public education for the coming school year. But we still have a long way to go before we feel any sense of confidence that we are making progress toward ending the exodus of Oklahoma teachers.

Since I’ve been watching Oklahoma wrestle with solutions now for more than two decades, I’d like to offer some practical advice to consider. I kind of feel like Sherlock Holmes’s trusty Dr. Watson at the end of a long search for evidence. In the end, the solution often appears more elementary than we want to admit.

So here are five suggestions on ways to solve teacher shortages you’ve probably heard before but are worth pointing out (just in case an elected official is searching for education topics while vacationing):

1. Reduce unnecessary burdens on students and teachers by limiting state assessments.
Currently, a high school student is required to be assessed in end-of-instruction exams seven times before graduating. Millions of dollars are given to big testing companies to service all of these tests online. Nationally testing is a billion dollar business. Pending legislation could have simplified the law by replacing multiple assessments with one or two tests, preferably the ACT. Lawmakers tabled those bills this legislative session even though parents and teachers overwhelmingly support fewer tests. Reduce testing burdens, and you will improve the quality of education in Oklahoma.

2. Eliminate unfunded mandates for schools.
Each year state legislators pass well meaning but ill-conceived mandates with no resources or money for implementation. Required CPR training for every high school graduate, required AIDS prevention training, and required financial literacy training are just a few examples. As a result, schools must redirect resources from traditional curriculum standards in order to meet the legal demands of each new mandate. Stop legislating unfunded mandates and you will improve the quality of education in Oklahoma.

3. Increase teacher pay and compensation.
In Oklahoma, a teacher’s individual health insurance is covered by the state; however, none of his or her dependent coverage is funded. An average teacher will pay $800-$1,000 a month of his or her own money to cover the difference if family or dependent health coverage is needed. Many educators have opted out of coverage for family because of the exorbitant costs. Oklahoma teachers rank 47th in the country for teacher pay. Just increasing health coverage benefits alone would put a lot of money back in the pockets of teachers. Provide teachers with competitive wages and benefits, and you will improve the quality of education in Oklahoma.

4. Incentivize advanced certifications in mathematics and science or in specialized subjects.
It is becoming increasingly difficult to find teachers with certifications in Calculus, Physics, Foreign Language, and Special Education. The state does pay special education teachers a percentage higher, and National Board Certified teachers, usually seasoned educators, have traditionally earned more per year. But young teachers to the profession have no financial incentive for obtaining advanced teaching certifications.

One advanced mathematics candidate I interviewed last year would have had to face $10,000 less in salary to move here from a similar size school district in Texas. He really wanted to move back to his home state of Oklahoma, but he realized he couldn’t afford to support himself if he did. Provide significant incentives for advanced and specialized certifications, and you will improve the quality of education in Oklahoma.

5. Eliminate quantitative components from teacher evaluations.
It is not fair to ask teachers to accept the challenge of low-income or low-performing schools and then threaten them with poor job performance ratings if their students don’t measure well in state testing. Teachers are not afraid of accountability, and qualitative evaluations can be good reflections on their performance. But the current quantitative formulas being introduced into teacher evaluations make the end-game all about testing. Don’t think anyone is being fooled. The emphasis on testing lines the pockets of big testing companies with millions of dollars each year from tax payer dollars, and these testing companies are big campaign donors and lobbyists. Stop punishing teachers for low-performing schools, and you will improve the state of education in Oklahoma.

You may be thinking of the obvious: How do we pay for increase in salaries, benefits, and resources for schools? I’ll finish by answering that question with three final three suggestions:

6. Save millions of dollars a year by firing testing companies who monopolize these services to schools.
The millions of dollars recovered could go a long way in helping better fund education. When you add millions of dollars back into school funding, you will improve the quality of education in Oklahoma.

7. Grant more power to local school boards instead of trying to control public schools from the top-down.
80-85% of a local school’s budget on average is spent on salaries. Relaxing unfunded mandates, for example, would free more resources up at the local level to dedicate them where they are needed most. When you empower local communities to create and enact their own solutions, you will improve the quality of education in Oklahoma.

8. Stop believing every tax cut is a wise one.
I support fiscally conservative initiatives and hate wasteful spending. But I also love great roads, bridges, law enforcement, libraries, and public schools. When our communities boast of those services, property values increase and so does our standard of living. Offering tax incentives that reduce monies that traditionally fund schools has not proven to be a win-win situation. Instead, it has lowered the quality of teachers we can retain in our schools. Prospective employers and companies choose to open businesses in states who have reputations of providing quality schools for their communities. When you invest significantly in schools, you will improve the quality of education in Oklahoma.

I really don’t enjoy writing about the politics of school. I prefer teaching to lecturing, and I prefer focusing on students instead of focusing on lawmakers. But sometimes when you see someone being bullied, you have to take a break from the work at hand to confront the situation.

Right now I see public education taking some pretty big hits. But I still have great trust in the good people of Oklahoma to rally around common sense solutions for their communities and schools. That’s why I’m still an optimist.

When state lawmakers are willing to reduce assessment burdens, eliminate unfunded mandates, increase teacher compensation, support sensible teacher accountability, recover monies lost to testing companies, grant more authority to local boards, and steward tax revenues as investments in community growth, then you will improve the quality of education in Oklahoma. It really is that elementary.

Now It’s Your Turn
If you believe our community schools are still worth the investment and support that will improve the quality of education for our community children and future generations, then please don’t let lawmakers enjoy too much rest during their summer recess. Visit Oklegislature.com to communicate with yours. Let’s make the next twenty years of education the kind we’ve always dreamed about for our schools.

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William D. Parker
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