The Enid News and Eagle, Enid, OK

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April 26, 2014

Oklahoma’s teacher pay gap is growing

Like leaks in a levee, teacher shortages are springing up faster than Oklahoma school districts can respond.

Now, instead of shortages mainly in math, science and special education, schools are grappling with vacancies in all departments and grade levels, according to lawmakers and district recruiters.

Oklahoma City Public Schools has 403 teaching vacancies that need to be filled before next school year, up from levels three years ago, recruiters said. Tulsa Public Schools is struggling to fill 84 positions, up from the typical 30 to 40 vacancies.

Smaller districts also are struggling to recruit.

“All teachers are getting hard to find … We’ve had to broaden our pool of applicants,” said Ronald Martin, deputy superintendent of instruction for McAlester Public Schools, whose district of about 3,000 students is down four high school teachers, more than in each of the previous three years.

The growing scarcity of teachers, educators say, reflects a situation that has marked Oklahoma public schools for decades: The state pays its teachers some of the lowest salaries in the nation.

Now, combined with other factors, the lower pay is creating an even greater obstacle for schools to attract and retain good teachers.

Ken Calhoun, who leads recruiting for Tulsa Public Schools, points to increased competition in surrounding states as his biggest challenge. His main competitors, Texas and northwestern Arkansas, offer better salaries and more classroom resources.

“Why is it getting harder? My gut tells me that the surrounding states have seen the need to put more money into education and teacher pay,” Calhoun said. “Oklahoma has not taken that step yet.”

Other causes include the high cost of a college degree, which can drive students to pursue higher-paying professions so they can pay off college loans; expanded opportunities for women beyond traditional fields such as teaching; and more intense demands in the classroom.

Better pay and other changes, such as more professional support for teachers, could alleviate the shortages, but more funding would need to be found, according to one state study.

Some existing teachers are considering leaving Oklahoma for more pay.

Tulsa Public Schools pre-kindergarten teacher Sommer Lyons, who works at ECDC Reed School, said she has considered moving to New York City.

Lyons makes $34,100 a year as a fourth-year teacher and also works an extra 15 hours on weekends waiting tables at a Chinese restaurant.

Lyons, a Teacher of the Year candidate, said New York’s average teaching salary of $75,279 has made her contemplate leaving her friends and family for better economic opportunities. While the cost of living is higher in New York City, Lyons said that would not be enough to outweigh the extra $31,000 she could potentially earn.

“It makes me feel a little resentful,” Lyons said of the discrepancy. “We are called on to teach. We will keep doing our jobs regardless of pay, and legislators know that.”

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