Since 2009, cuts to Oklahama's education budgets have totaled over $1 billion
Ninth-grade algebra teacher Shawn Sheehan was such a star in the classroom that his work in the Oklahoma City suburb of Norman attracted national recognition, earning him a post as one of four finalists for the country's 2016 Teacher of the Year award. Just over a year later, Sheehan announced last week in a post on his blog that he and his wife are quitting their jobs in Oklahoma and moving with their 7-month-old daughter to Texas.
But why the Lone Star State? Well, they say everything is bigger there—including teacher paychecks. For Sheehan, the prospect of not having to struggle and scrape to make ends meet has lured one of Oklahoma’s best and most beloved educators across the state line.
Education funding in Oklahoma is in such a desperate state that teacher salaries there have been stagnant for nearly a decade. A new teacher in Oklahoma earns just $31,600, while a renowned educator like Sheehan with six years experience and a master’s degree could expect to earn no more than $35,100.
In comparison, the starting salary for a first year educator in the northern part of Texas tops $50,000. Hello instant raise.
[quote position="full" is_quote="true"]Of course I’m here for my students, their families, and this community, but I won’t apologize for demanding a livable wage.[/quote]
Folks who go into public education aren’t expecting to be paid a cushy salary, which is why a few educators have suggested that Sheehan doesn’t care about the kids. “Who in their right mind teaches in Oklahoma for the money?” he wrote on his blog. “Of course I’m here for my students, their families, and this community, but I won’t apologize for demanding a livable wage.”
His issues with education funding in Oklahoma aren’t only related to teacher pay. A survey by the Oklahoma State School Boards Association found that, since 2009, cuts to education budgets have “have totaled over $1 billion and Oklahoma has about 2,050 fewer certified educators while enrollment has increased by more than 39,000 students.” As a result, art, music, and athletic programs are being slashed, and nearly 100 districts have moved to a four-day week to save money. The latest state budget offered up a measly 1.6 percent increase in education funding, with no boost to teacher salaries.
It’s no wonder then that Sheehan has long spoken up publicly about the lack of support for public schools in Oklahoma. In January 2016, when another round of budget cuts were looming, he stayed optimistic and wrote tips to his fellow teachers on how to survive. Put “on your teacher face so that we minimize the negativity that gets to our classroom and students,” he suggested. By December, however, Sheehan was fed up with only earning $1,872 a month after taxes and deductions and begged Santa for help. Assistance with day care and diaper costs, rent, and student loan payments didn’t come. It shouldn’t be surprising then that in March, he wrote about going to a job fair held in Oklahoma by school districts in Texas, “where there are college grads with zero teaching experience who will be making more than 30-year veteran educators in our state.”
“Teaching in Oklahoma is a dysfunctional relationship. And with a myriad of emotions, I have made the decision to end this relationship,” wrote Sheehan on his blog last week. The post has gone viral in education circles, with most educators empathizing with Sheehan’s decision. “I've heard from teachers across Oklahoma and Texas and most of them are supportive of the move,” Sheehan wrote in an email to GOOD.
In his application for Oklahoma Teacher of the Year Sheehan wrote that “leading by example is at the core of my teaching philosophy.” It seems he’s putting that philosophy into practice with this decision to head to Texas. But with deep cuts to public education being suggested at the federal level, it’s not unreasonable to wonder if what has happened to public schools in Oklahoma will eventually happen in Texas and elsewhere across the nation.