Monday, May 05, 2008

On Paying Teachers

Thank you Ken.

A sad Oklahoma story

By KEN NEAL Senior Editor 5/4/2008

State is mired in the past on teachers' salaries

The Sand Springs Education Foundation recently honored a "hometown boy" for his outstanding record as a football coach and educator.

He was a fellow with whom I started first grade. He and I finished high school at Sand Springs in 1953. I am leaving his name out because he would be embarrassed for me to tell this story.

But it is Oklahoma that should be embarrassed because his experience tells us a lot about what has been and still is wrong with the state's education system.

Our man attended college in a Midwestern state, played football there and obtained a degree in mathematics.

Upon graduation from college, he began looking for teaching opportunities. He wanted to return to Sand Springs to coach football and teach math.

But, then as now, Oklahoma was not the land of opportunity for teachers.

In fact, the state had just refused to raise teachers' salaries.

So our man answered an advertisement seeking teachers in a far-off northern state. He got a job in a small city, coached there for a few years and then became head coach in a suburb of a northern metropolis.

He coached there for 20 years, won his league's championship 15 times and was runner-up the other five years.

He was coach of the year several times in a large state and was honored by his coaching colleagues many times. He was so revered in his city that when the high school built a new stadium it was named for him.

He compiled a record of 161 wins and only 31 losses as a head coach. He retired early in 1986 to allow his trusted assistant to move up, but continued to teach for another five years.

He had a remarkable career. The sad part is that he could have had that career in Oklahoma. It's even sadder that he tried to do that, but could not justify returning home to work for far less money than he could make elsewhere.

That has been -- and still is -- the story of Oklahoma. We won't pay teachers salaries that make the state competitive. For that matter, we don't pay prison guards, welfare employees, judges and attorneys or just about any state worker what they could earn in other states.

We have had Legislature after Legislature that expects teachers and state employees to work for less than elsewhere, presumably because they are willing to sacrifice their families' welfare for the privilege of living in our great state. Lovely as it is, it is not that great.

Even now our Legislature has broken its word to teachers. Three years ago, lawmakers resolved to raise their salaries to the regional average. This year schools needed $64.9 million to do this, but the lawmakers failed to appropriate a dime for the raises.

The reason? The Legislature for the past two years has cut taxes, claiming the cuts would boom the economy. Of course, that is what George H.W. Bush called "Voodoo economics." The only thing that has kept Oklahoma spending from sinking even lower than it has is the soaring price of crude oil. The state gets 7 percent of the gross sales and a booming oil industry means more income tax revenue and bigger and bigger royalty checks.

Even with this oil windfall, the state's income has not met expectations. Lawmakers wring their hands and cry over no new money and a "steady state" or level budget. This, from the guys who engineered this state of affairs with their irresponsible tax policy.

For schools and other state agencies this "steady state" budget means sharp cuts, because all costs, particularly transportation costs, are higher than last year. In some school districts, teachers will be fired in order to pay those higher costs.

Lawmakers have convinced themselves and the people, that taxes in Oklahoma are too high and that government is spending too much money.

The facts are that Oklahomans are taxed at a level lower than most of the states and spending on education, highways, corrections and other services is less than almost any state.

But what of our Sand Springs boy who was forced to spend a highly productive career in another state?

He did well. He influenced hundreds of high school football players in a positive way. He taught hundreds of students to be mathematicians. He obviously influenced generations of people in his adopted hometown, far from Oklahoma.

But Oklahoma suffered. It reared this man; it educated him; it inspired him to be a coach and a teacher; it set him on his way in life, only to let him down when it came time to provide him a job.

Oklahoma was the loser in this transaction.

One wonders how many times this sad little story has been repeated in the past 30 years. How many of our best and brightest have we lost to other states because of our short-sightedness in paying teachers and others?

How many Oklahoma students have been deprived of being led by a man like our honoree at Sand Springs because of legislative stupidity (sorry, there's hardly another word for it).

The lawmakers even now are heading toward adjournment without making substantive progress on necessary services like public schools, highways, and corrections.

They never learn. It has been 50 years since our man struck out to teach and little has changed with Oklahoma education.

We are mired in the past.

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