Teacher pay remains at the forefront of citizens' minds after the election

click to enlarge Teacher pay remains at the forefront of citizens' minds after the election
Garett Fisbeck
Thousands gather on at the Oklahoma State Capitol for a Teacher's Rally, Monday, March 30, 2015.

After hearing reports of long early voting lines, first-time voter Christina Sommers visited her polling station early to cast her ballot in the November general election.The 18-year-old arrived at 6:55 a.m. at the polling location near her home in Choctaw and was one of the first to submit a ballot.

“In my government class, my teacher spent a lot of time talking about the upcoming election,” said Sommers, who graduated high school in May and attends Rose State College in Midwest City. “He encouraged us to vote, as it was part of our civic duty.”

The presidential election and Oklahoma’s seven state questions drove Sommers’ enthusiasm for democracy. As she completed her ballot, Sommers believed she was lending her voice to the state’s and nation’s future. One policy proposal greatly impacting her and future generations was State Question 779, a constitutional measure to raise state sales and use tax by 1 percent to fund education, including a teacher pay raise.

“Teachers deserve more,” Sommers said. “I’ve seen them struggle over their pay. They deserve it.”

Whether teachers deserve raises or not wasn’t the policy question before Oklahoma voters, which opponents pointed out in the weeks leading up to Election Day. SQ 779 asked voters to decide whether to raise the state sales and use tax to fund a teacher raise as well as distribute new funding streams to the Oklahoma State Department of Education, Oklahoma Regents for Higher Education and Oklahoma Department of Career and Technology Education.

Oklahoma voters overwhelmingly disagreed with the ballot plan to deliver a $5,000 pay raise to all public school teachers. The current average salary for Oklahoma teachers is $44,549, below the national and regional average. All said, 853,573 Oklahomans voted against the measure and 583,429 voted in its favor, Oklahoma State Election Board data shows.

Educator perspective

As election night results rolled in, a number of SQ 779 backers — including many who work in public education — shared their reactions via social media. Among them was Lori Kennedy-Goodbary, a teacher at Edmond Public Schools’ Cheyenne Middle School.

“We took it for granted that it was a done deal. I never really thought it would fail,” said Kennedy-Goodbary before she took a deep breath. “I was in tears thinking nearly 300,000 people in Oklahoma don’t respect my career and think I am a glorified baby sitter. That’s what I felt. It was a stab in the heart.”

SQ 779 was fiercely debated in the months before the election as proponents and opponents generally agreed a teacher pay increase was very much needed. The disagreement was over how to best finance the raise. Opposition groups said shifting around state budget funds could make room for the raise. Groups like OCPA Impact and Oklahoma Deserves Better insisted a tax increase was unnecessary and could hurt the working class, poor and local economies.

click to enlarge Teacher pay remains at the forefront of citizens' minds after the election
Senator Holt at his desk on the floor, 2-13-13. mh

Lawmakers’ chance

After the defeat of SQ 779, many Oklahomans wonder what’s next regarding teacher pay. The measure’s proponents and opponents agree the issue is an important one.

Five days after the election, Oklahoma’s Children, Our Future, the coalition responsible for proposing the constitutional amendment, released an open letter to Oklahoma lawmakers. It was posted on PassAPlan.org, and Oklahomans were encouraged to add their name to the seven-paragraph letter.

“It is time for you to take bold action and pass a plan that adequately addresses Oklahoma’s education funding crisis and massive teacher shortage,” the letter’s first sentence reads.

At least one lawmaker is already working on a legislative plan to invest in public school teachers. Earlier this year, Sen. David Holt, R-Oklahoma City, proposed a $10,000 teacher pay raise. The proposal, which included calls for tax reform and earmarking revenue growth, failed to advance.

With time before the legislative session begins in February, the northwest Oklahoma City lawmaker aims to again file legislation to raise teacher pay.

“I think the statement that the voters of Oklahoma made Tuesday was not a rejection of a teacher pay raise,” Holt told Oklahoma Gazette two days after the general election. “I think it was a statement that legislators need to do a better plan.”

The lawmaker envisions a teacher raise bill with multiple funding streams. He suggested enacting taxes on currently exempt items like auto services, cable television and overnight trailer park rentals.

Holt plans to spend the next month developing a teacher pay proposal to bring a $10,000 raise, which would put Oklahoma closer to the national average. If the legislation moves forward, it would take a few years before teachers would see the increase reflected in their paychecks. Regardless, Holt believes it’s essential to move forward on a plan.

“If we do abandon the issue of teacher pay, we will simply not have the type of teachers in Oklahoma that we want,” Holt said.

New plan

Crisis is a term often associated with public education in Oklahoma. The state has a deepening teacher shortage, fewer dollars coming into classrooms and no statewide teacher pay raise since 2008, despite many legislative attempts, which failed to advance.

When Oklahoma’s Children, Our Future introduced its education sales tax plan in October 2015, the plan and its championed supporters ushered a statewide boost in teacher morale, Kennedy-Goodbary said.

After 25 years in the family and consumer sciences classroom, Kennedy-Goodbary is a committed and passionate educator. The National Board-certified teacher is nearing retirement. A pay increase would lift retirement savings, which could make the difference between enjoying retirement and retiring but seeking a second job.

“It was the light at the end of the tunnel,” Kennedy-Goodbary said of SQ 779. “It was just enough of an increase to not be broke at the end of every month.”

Scrolling through social media, educators posted their post-Election Day classroom and school experiences. Based on Oklahoma voters’ decision, many said that they sensed people don’t appreciate teachers and the role they play in shaping Oklahoma’s future. Others received encouraging emails and notes from school leaders or parent-teacher associations.

It worries longtime educators like Kennedy-Goodbary that fewer people pursue teaching and young teachers leave the profession for careers with higher pay. She is hopeful that lawmakers will step up, not just to propose teacher pay legislation, but also to pass it.

“We’ve got to get something in place,” she said.

Print headline: What next?, Despite election outcomes, teacher pay is still an issue.

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