What’s the matter with Oklahoma?
Low teacher pay and severe budget cuts are driving schools to the brink FORTY miles from Tulsa, sometimes along unpaved roads, sits Wagoner High School, with its 650 pupils, championship-caliber football team, and show barn—a seemingly ordinary small-town school. But unlike most high schools, Wagoner is closed on Mondays. The reason, a severe reduction in state funds, has pushed 90 other school districts in Oklahoma to do the same. Teacher pay is the third-lowest in the country and has triggered a statewide shortage, as teachers flee to neighboring states like Arkansas and Texas or to private schools. “Most of our teachers work second jobs,” says Darlene Adair, Wagoner’s principal. “A lot of them work at Walmart on nights and weekends, or in local restaurants.” Ms. Adair hopes that Walmart does not offer her teachers a full-time job, which would be a pay rise for many.
The roots of the fiasco are not hard to determine. As in Oklahoma’s northern neighbor, Kansas, deep tax cuts have wrecked the state’s finances. During the shale boom, lawmakers gave a sweetheart deal to its oilmen, costing $470m in a single year, by slashing the gross production tax on horizontal drilling from 7% to 1%. North Dakota, by contrast, taxes production at 11.5%. The crash in global oil prices in 2014 did not help state coffers either. Oklahoma has also cut income taxes, first under Democrats desperate to maintain control over a state that was trending Republican and then under Republicans, who swept to power anyway. Mary Fallin, the Republican governor, came to office pledging to eliminate the income tax altogether. Since 2008 general state funds for K-12 education in Oklahoma have been slashed by 28.2%—the biggest cut in the country. Property taxes, which might have made up the difference, are constitutionally limited.
Other state agencies are broke, too. Highway patrolmen are told not to fill their petrol tanks to save money. That caught drunk-driving are able to keep their licenses because there are no bureaucrats to revoke them. Prisons are dangerously overcrowded, to the point that the state’s director of corrections publicly says that “something is going to pop”. But unlike Kansas, whose Republican legislature eventually rebelled and reversed the tax cuts over the governor’s veto, Oklahoma will find its troubling experiment much more difficult to undo. Because of a referendum passed in 1992, any bill that seeks to raise taxes must be approved by three-quarters of the legislature.
No fact embarrasses Oklahomans more or repels prospective businesses more than the number of cash-strapped districts that have gone to four-day weeks. Yet even such a radical change may not help finances much. Paul Hill, a professor of education at the University of Washington, Bothell, estimates that the savings are “in the 1 or 2% range at most”. That sliver is still important to Kent Holbrook, superintendent of public schools in Inola (the self-styled “Hay Capital of the World”). “In my mind, that’s five or six teachers,” says Mr. Holbrook. Already, from 2008 to 2016, he has lost 11 teachers from a corps that once numbered 100. He has also had to reduce Spanish classes and, for the tenth year running, delay buying new textbooks.
It is also unclear whether four-day weeks actually harm learning. Administrators note that the children are better behaved. Parents seem to appreciate having an extra day for doctors’ appointments. Nor do the pupils mind much. In an informal poll, a class of eight-year-olds was overwhelmingly in favor. Academics are less certain. One study, conducted in Montana, noted a short-term increase in test scores soon after the schedule shift, but a significant drop-off in subsequent years. Some schools have experimented with four-day weeks not because they risked financial insolvency, but to encourage pupils to job-shadow in their time off.
The real reason why so many school districts are resorting to a tighter calendar is that it is the only true perk they can offer to poorly paid teachers, whose salaries start at $31,600 and who have not received a rise for ten years. The exodus to Texas and Arkansas, which included Oklahoma’s Teacher of the Year in 2016, continues unabated. A 20-minute drive across the border often results in a $10,000 increase. Dallas’s school district has unashamedly set up booths in Oklahoma City to poach what talent remains. So dire is the shortage that school districts have found 1,850 adults without the necessary qualifications, given them emergency certifications, and placed them in classrooms. “This year, I emergency-certified my secretary,” says Penny Risley, the principal of an elementary school in Wagoner. Teach for America, which places fresh graduates from leading colleges in classrooms, is usually unpopular with teachers’ unions. In Oklahoma, they are welcomed with open arms.
To make matters worse, the expensive health insurance offered to teachers eats into already meager pay. Under the cheapest plan on offer, monthly premiums are $400 for a single person. The cost of adding a spouse is another $470 per month; a child is $208. In Catoosa, a school district not far from Tulsa, an elementary-school secretary tells of an aide with four children whose premiums were so large that she paid the district $200 a month to work there. A recently hired special-education teacher worries that she will not be able to afford a flat for herself and her two children without a housing voucher and food stamps, says Julie Phillips, a speech pathologist with Tulsa Public Schools. After a school drive to raise food for poor families unexpectedly had some left over, needy teachers divided the remaining bags of apples and potatoes among themselves.
Prospects of a sensible resolution appear dim. “We’re close now to the point of no return when the system is doomed to sag from here on out,” says John Waldron, a public-school teacher in Tulsa, as he knocks on doors on a sunny afternoon, campaigning for a seat in the state House. Each voter Mr. Waldron greets with a smile seems grim and worn out, muttering about the “completely screwed-up” education system. Out of nearly 20 Oklahoma teachers and administrators interviewed, none held out hope of meaningful reforms. Ms. Fallin, the state governor, has called for a $5,000 pay rise for teachers and has endorsed some modest tax increases ahead of the next legislative session. Whether she can muster enough support to cross the three-quarters threshold the state constitution requires for a tax increase is unclear; recent attempts have fallen just short. Meanwhile, some Republicans, intent on cutting more spending, have an eye on the state’s Medicaid programme.