OKLAHOMA CITY — For 11 years, Stephen Smallwood drove lonely, rural roads to his job south of the border.
Smallwood, who lives in Rattan, a small town in rural southeastern Oklahoma, had taught about 28 years in Oklahoma classrooms. His passion was rewarded with a state Teacher of the Year award and a finalist nod for the prestigious Horace Mann-National Education Association Award for Teaching Excellence.
That was until the lure of $10,000 more a year and better benefits forced a tough decision — remain in Oklahoma or commute 39 miles to a high school in Paris, Texas.
Smallwood chose Texas, where he also was honored as a regional Teacher of the Year.
“It had to be about seeking a better future for myself as opposed to staying where my heart was,” said Smallwood, 66, now retired.
Education experts say Oklahoma is suffering a shortage of teachers as educators like Smallwood pursue jobs in the six surrounding states, all of which offer better pay and benefits.
The state Department of Education doesn’t track how many teaching positions are open. But the State School Boards Association’s recruiting website currently lists more than 300 vacancies, not including those in many of the state’s largest districts, which advertise on their own. A study earlier this year found as many as 750 vacancies.
More than 42,000 teachers work in the state’s public schools.
“It makes it more difficult to recruit them and retain them because when you can go to 48 other states and make more than you can in Oklahoma, that’s an enticement to leave,” said Linda Hampton, president of the Oklahoma Education Association.
It’s a phenomenon that state Rep. Mike Brown calls the “brain drain.” During the last legislative session, the Tahlequah Democrat sponsored an unsuccessful bill to bring up Oklahoma’s teacher pay to the regional average, in hopes of stemming the tide of highly qualified teachers.
“We’re losing teachers right now to other states,” Brown said. “Who would like to work in the same place for the same amount of money with no increase whatsoever, and at the same time your bills are going up?
“It’s demeaning,” he said. “It comes to the point where you love your job so much, you go hungry.”
For some teachers, said Hampton, that’s literally the case. She noted her income qualified her children for free and reduced lunch at school during part of her 34-year teaching career.
Teachers with no experience and only a bachelor’s degree make a minimum of $31,600 per year plus benefits, including pension, according to the state’s teacher salary schedule for 2014-15. A teacher with 25 years on the job makes about $10,000 more.
Teachers can move up with advanced degrees and certification, but nobody is eligible for any state raises after 25 years.
Oklahoma teachers who qualify haven’t seen a change in the state’s salary schedule in seven years.
Hongbo Wang, a doctoral student in Oklahoma State University’s Department of Economics and Legal Studies, recently co-authored a study that put Oklahoma in the bottom five states for teacher pay in the 2012-13 school year, even after adjustments for factors such as a low cost of living.
“Any way you compare salaries across states, Oklahoma is near the bottom,” Wang said. “This has caused a significant number of Oklahoma teachers to leave the teaching profession, which likely adversely affected the Oklahoma economy.”
A lower salary reduces the probability that an education major stays in teaching by 4 percent, she said. It’s reduced 14 percent for math, science and computer education majors.
John Cox, superintendent of Peggs Public School, who ran unsuccessfully this year for state superintendent of public instruction, said the talent shortage is a significant concern.
A decade ago, Cox’s Tulsa-area district had more than 100 resumes for teaching openings, he said.
Now, it’s lucky to have 10 or 15.
“It’s hard to entice people to come into the profession,” he said.
But the struggle affects teachers at both ends of the profession.
Those just starting out, with student debt to repay, find it hard to justify working for $31,000 a year, he said. For experienced teachers, not being eligible for raises beyond the 25-year mark drives them to other states or more lucrative professions, he said.
“It’s really become a statewide problem because teachers are not out there to hire,” Cox said.
The National Education Association estimated that the average Oklahoma teacher made $44,128 during the 2012-13 school year, ranking the state 49th of 51 in teacher pay. Teachers in neighboring Arkansas and New Mexico averaged nearly $2,000 more a year; Kansas and Missouri, $3,000 more; Texas, $4,000 more; and Colorado, $5,000 more.
Next year, Hampton said her group plans to lobby the Legislature for a $3,000 across-the-board raise, and a $1,600 raise for support professionals.
Brown, the legislator, said education funding is one of his passions. He said Republicans should “put something out there to save face,” adding that another bill to raise teacher pay will fail without their support.
But for Republicans, it’s not so simple. State budget officials estimate that giving every teacher in Oklahoma a raise of $1,000 per year will cost $50 million.
“The teacher shortage is a very real issue, not only in Oklahoma but other states,” said House Speaker Jeff Hickman, R-Fairview.
Education remains a Republican priority, said Hickman, and he noted that the Legislature added more than $100 million to schools by cutting the budgets of 54 other state agencies in the last session.
This year, Hickman said plummeting oil prices will weigh on state revenues, and the Legislature will have to wait to see how much money is available before deciding how to address teacher pay, if at all.
“What we can focus on immediately are the other issues that relate to job satisfaction for our teachers and look for ways to address those issues which don't have an impact on the state budget,” he said.
Hampton said teachers have been patiently waiting for pay increases for seven years.
“I think it’s a matter of setting your priorities,” she said.
Average teacher salaries by state (2012-2013)
United States $56,383
1. New York $75,279
2. Massachusetts $73,129
3. Washington D.C. $70,906
32. Colorado $49,844
38. Texas $48,110
41. Missouri $47,517
42. Kansas $47,464
45. Arkansas $46,632
46. New Mexico $46,573
49. Oklahoma $44,128
50. Mississippi $41,994
51. South Dakota $39,580
Source: National Education Association