Homework” by Chris Yarzab

August 28, 2017; Times Record (Associated Press)

If you’re looking for a situation that exemplifies the dangers of cutting too much public spending, look no further than Oklahoma’s public schools, where charities have stepped in to rescue teachers from near-poverty.

As might be expected, teachers have tired of struggling to survive and are fleeing to neighboring states like Texas, where they can get pay raises of $40,000 just by moving. The Sooner State’s colossal deficit makes it difficult to raise teacher salaries, which rank 49th in the nation and have decreased, in real terms, over the last decade. About 11 out of 100 teachers leave the school system each year in search of better pay.

According to the Washington Post, “the number of positions filled by emergency-certified teachers—who have no education training (or, in [Newcastle superintendent Tony] O’Brien’s words, ‘are upright and breathing’)—is now 35 times as high as it was in 2011” at over 1,400 positions. One superintendent taught third grade during the first week of school this year, joining other non-teaching staff assigned to supervise classrooms until teachers could be found.

Nonprofits are pitching in to help the situation. Charity drives for school supplies, subsidized loan programs, and other perks have been solicited to attract teachers to the state. Most significantly, the Kaiser Foundation has invested in making Tulsa more attractive to Teach for America (TFA) candidates and other young teachers. According to Forbes,

Kaiser’s foundation…put up $1 million a year to help bring 150 young teachers to Tulsa from the Teach for America program. To house them Kaiser’s foundation has invested [$2 million] more in turning Tulsa’s decrepit warehouse district into a hip neighborhood of subsidized loft apartments (and $12 million to beautify Tulsa’s stretch of the Arkansas River).

Will all this be enough to attract the teachers that Oklahoma’s students deserve? It seems quite unlikely and perhaps even counterproductive. NPQ has reported before on the issue of nonprofit wage ghettos and some of the same principles seem to apply here. Asking people to do more for less, assuming that their wish to serve will overcome their need to earn a reasonable income, is neglectful of both workers and constituents and contributes directly to inequity. Charities can slightly alleviate some of the most direct and immediate pain caused by lack of dedicated public resources, but as NPQ has pointed out before, these basic services should be paid for by taxes and managed by government in a way that confers job security and longevity.

But Oklahoma has a $900 million budget deficit, and according to Sean Murphy of the Associated Press, “Over the past three years, state funding for public schools has declined by more than $48 million, even as student enrollment increased by nearly 8,000.” Teacher salaries are entirely dependent upon state allocations.

The Oklahoma Policy Institute claimed that “The Tulsa World reported that polls show that 86 percent of Oklahomans support [State Superintendent of Schools Joy] Hofmeister’s plan for teacher pay raises,” but last fall, voters rejected a one percent tax increase that would have raised teacher salaries by $5,000. NPQ has commented before on Oklahoma’s “wildly idiosyncratic” tax code, which exempts the National Rifle Association from sales tax but not the American Civil Liberties Union. Oklahoma’s state officials denied a proposed tax hike as recently as last week, making it less likely the situation will resolve itself this school year.

Efforts like the one by the Kaiser Foundation to build an attractive city deserve applause for attempting a longer-term solution to the problem, but attracting TFA candidates is not enough. Oklahoma’s students are still waiting for their teachers.—Erin Rubin