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‘It just hurts my heart’: Low pay, big classes are the plight of Oklahoma teachers

Robert Bohn works with his agriculture class at Cement High School in Cement, Okla. He has been teaching for nearly 20 years. He farms, raises his own food and is a pastor at a local church. (J Pat Carter for The Washington Post/For The Washington Post)

TULSA — For the superintendent of this city’s public schools, the signs that her teachers are struggling can be found everywhere.

At a local restaurant, it was a teacher who served Deborah Gist recently. At the Reasor’s grocery, there’s sometimes a teacher behind the register. And then there was the Uber that the school district chief hailed to catch an early-morning flight — a teacher sat behind the wheel, trying to earn some money before heading to the classroom. There was a stack of student journals on the passenger seat.

“It’s just so wrong that it just hurts my heart,” said Gist, who has been superintendent since 2015.

Oklahoma’s teachers are among the nation’s lowest paid, and ­despite the governor and lawmakers approving a $6,100 raise this week, educators pledge to walk out Monday if their full demands — including reversal of budget cuts — are not met. For a decade, little has been done to address the plight of the state’s teachers. It is a situation that has forced many to take second jobs, rely on food pantries and donate their plasma to pay the bills.

The nine-day teachers' strike has come to an end after a bill passed the West Virginia House and Senate to give all state workers a 5 percent pay raise. (Video: Whitney Leaming/The Washington Post)

The revolt in Oklahoma comes amid a wave of teacher protests that have no recent parallel in the United States. In West Virginia, educators stayed out for nine tense days before winning a pay raise. In Arizona, teachers are threatening to strike unless the state gives them a 20 percent salary increase. In Kentucky, educators shut down at least 20 school systems Friday as they converged on the state capitol to protest pension reforms. “Don’t make us go West Virginia on you,” one protester’s sign read.

Earlier this year, educators in Oklahoma turned heartbroken — and desperate — as the legislature failed to boost their salaries. Then, about 1,000 miles to the east, West Virginia’s teachers walked off the job and leveraged a 5 percent raise after shutting down schools. Suddenly, whispers about the possibility of a strike in Oklahoma grew to a full-throated roar, even as teachers agonized over whether they should leave their students behind.

“We had been talking about it forever,” said Randi Cowan, a third-grade teacher in Tulsa who earned $33,746 last year and lives in a home built by Habitat for Humanity. “But then somebody else did it and . . . it just ignited our fire.”

As in West Virginia, educators in Oklahoma have reached a breaking point, fed up with stagnant wages and cuts to education funding. The idea of a walkout began to gain traction in mid-February after a proposed salary increase failed to win enough support among lawmakers. A ­superintendent circulated a petition asking colleagues if they would support a teacher walkout.

Then a 25-year-old social studies teacher, inspired by what happened in West Virginia, began a Facebook group titled “Oklahoma Teacher Walkout — The Time is Now!” It has ballooned to 70,000 members, including educators from Oklahoma and West Virginia and supportive parents.

Educators — backed by the state’s teachers unions — demanded a $10,000 raise for themselves and a $5,000 raise for support personnel. They are also asking the state to restore budget cuts and boost spending on schools by $200 million over three years. If they do not get what they want by Monday, teachers in about 140 school districts — including some of the state’s largest — plan to walk off the job.

In 2016, Oklahoma ranked 49th in teacher pay — lower even than West Virginia, which was 48th. The average compensation package of an Oklahoma teacher was $45,276 a year, according to the National Education Association, a figure that includes a high-priced health plan and other benefits. That’s far less than educators in neighboring states, making it difficult — for many districts, impossible — to find and keep qualified teachers.

Oklahoma’s 2016 teacher of the year, Shawn Sheehan, decamped for Texas last year, joining many other teachers who sought ­higher-paying jobs.

Robert Bohn, an agriculture teacher in the small town of Cement, said he could make $20,000 more annually teaching in Texas. He pointed down the two-lane highway. “Texas is just an hour that way,” Bohn said.

The state’s funding crisis began at least a decade ago when the recession hit, leading lawmakers to take a cleaver to education spending. Even after the state’s economy recovered, long-standing tax cuts and plunging oil prices constrained state revenue and depleted education funding. In this deeply conservative state, lawmakers have resisted raising taxes — and doing so requires a three-quarters majority of the legislature.

Adjusted for inflation, the amount the state spends per student has fallen nearly 30 percent over the past decade, according to the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

The consequences are evident across the state.

Virginia Ayers, a sixth-grade teacher at a Tulsa elementary school with many students from low-income families, has 36 youngsters in her class. In rural Cement, school system leaders could no longer afford to keep the lights on five days a week, so they cut the academic week to four days. It’s not the only district: Last year, 96 had four-day school weeks.

In Bartlesville, Superintendent Chuck McCauley, desperate for a math teacher, hired a candidate with a physical education degree and no classroom experience. “We’re literally hiring people right now that we would not have even interviewed 10 years ago,” McCauley said.

With state budget in crisis, many Oklahoma schools hold classes four days a week

Paltry pay has taken an obvious toll on the lives of teachers. Some live paycheck to paycheck and face eviction because they cannot keep up with the bills. Struggling for survival, many have put off saving for retirement and emergencies. One teacher, a single mother of two young children, lived with her mother and shared a bed with her youngsters because she could not afford rent. Her own children were enrolled in the Children’s Health Insurance Program, which provides coverage to families with modest incomes, and she made so little that she qualified for a Habitat for Humanity home.

Ayers took out a high-interest payday loan for a $1,300 car repair. But she could not afford loan payments and groceries, so to feed herself, she began lining up at a plasma center twice a week, earning $20 to $40 for each donation. It made her lethargic in the classroom.

“It left me tired most of the time,” said Ayers, who also developed shingles.

She once had to turn to a church — John 3:16 Mission — for help paying a utility bill. There, she caught a glimpse of some of her students in an after-school program.

“It made me ashamed because I’m trying to inspire children to go to college, to have a better life,” Ayers said. “Here I went to college for nine years, and I can’t even support myself. What kind of role model was that?”

Jennifer Thornton, a third-grade teacher at a high-poverty elementary school in Tulsa, said she supports herself and her teenage son on less than $2,000 a month. Two years ago, she had to have brain surgery, and after the medical bills mounted, she showed up at the John 3:16 Mission food pantry. She spotted some of her students on the church playground and prayed they had not recognized her.

“It was so embarrassing,” Thornton said, breaking down into tears. “They and their families are in the same situation . . . but it did not make it much easier.”

In her darkened cinder-block apartment, Thornton opened the cabinets to reveal about a dozen cans. In the refrigerator, there was little more than an empty egg carton and a smattering of condiments sitting forlornly. The cans, she said, came from an adoring student whose mother realized Thornton was struggling when she saw her collecting leftover food from a Valentine’s Day party. The boy brought her a bag of groceries — also culled from a food pantry.

“Teaching in the state breaks my heart every day,” Thornton said. “I don’t know how much longer I can do it at all without a pay raise.”

At Hale High in Tulsa, about a dozen students hunched over phones on a recent weekday, listening to music or chatting during what was supposed to be their biology class. There was little to distinguish the room as a biology classroom — just a poster of the periodic table and a pile of dusty textbooks. Two teachers had quit since the start of the school year. On this day, nearly three weeks after the last teacher left, a local hairdresser serving as a substitute teacher took attendance but had no work to give students.

“My grade is high, but still, I want to learn a lot because I do like science,” said Delvon McKinney, a 17-year-old 10th-grader who spends idle class time charging his phone. He also went several weeks without an art teacher last semester. The constant churn of teachers frustrates him. “You get comfortable, and they’re gone.”

Two and a half hours southwest of Oklahoma City, in Comanche County, Bohn oversees 40 acres of land, raising chickens, pigs and cattle. He rises about 5:30 a.m. and in the darkness feeds his cattle and horses. His small-scale farm — where he also grows and cans peaches — feeds his family, including his wife, a kindergarten teacher who was forced to retire because of a disability, and his 14-year-old daughter. He supports them on the $50,000 a year he earns through an extended contract and also makes money as a church pastor.

At Cement High, he teaches students to raise their own food so they, too, can supplement their families’ diets. He has two safes in his classroom, housing shotguns for the school’s champion shooting team.

Bohn is a registered Republican who voted for President Trump, and he is leery of unions. But the problems that he faces in the classroom — decrepit computers and old textbooks — transcend politics for him.

As the sun rose over the school, a pump jack extracted oil from the earth beneath the classrooms, a mechanical hum filling the air. It stood between the school building and the softball field that Bohn turned into an orchard.

The machine is an ever-
present reminder of the state’s most dominant, and powerful, industry. Bohn stood in its shadow as the mechanical head bobbed up and down and shared his belief that oil companies were not paying their fair share — until this week, when, along with the teacher pay increase, the legislature voted to hike taxes on oil production.

“There’s oil wells right on the school grounds,” he said, “and yet we don’t get much of anything from it.”