Same Boaters

Shipwrecked by Chris Pugh on Flickr’s The Commons

It’s the type of logic that has been used by conservatives for decades in Oklahoma that drives me crazy.

It goes like this: Oklahoma is a low-wage state so we all just need to accept it, especially when it comes to that pesky fact that teacher salaries here traditionally rank 49th or 48th lowest in the nation. Everyone is “in the same boat” here.

Note that the argument isn’t that all working Oklahomans, given the data, should make MORE money and have MORE household income. That would be a more positive message. No, we’re all “in the same boat.” Get over it.

I’ve repeated the cliché “in the same boat” because it was used by The Oklahoman in an editorial brief Saturday as part of their Oklahoma ScissorTales series to qualify how badly teachers are treated here.

Teachers here make some of the lowest pay in the nation when compared to teachers in other states and now the state faces a major teacher shortage that is probably going to get worse because of a state budget shortfall of $611 million and growing.

The answer to the problem by The Oklahoman is, to repeat it again, to say we’re all “in the same boat” here. Here’s the editorial brief:

Much is made of Oklahoma’s low ranking for average teacher pay. Yet new data from the Internal Revenue Service suggest many people across Oklahoma would likely be glad to swap incomes with those teachers. Oklahoma’s average teacher salary is $44,128. IRS data show that the average income in 32 of Oklahoma’s 77 counties is less than $44,000. In Marshall County, the average income is $43,534. The lowest average income recorded is in Adair County ($31,347). The highest average income was recorded in Grant County ($86,864). But that high number, nearly double the amount notched in Grant County in 2009, was tied mostly to oil-field work. Teachers work hard, but oil-field work is not exactly for slackers. And that work is prone to boom and bust cycles, as many are experiencing today. This doesn’t mean some teachers don’t deserve more. It just shows that many Oklahomans are in the same boat.

Seems logical at first, right? It even throws out the idea that “some” teachers should make more money. “Some” is the operative word here. But the problem with this thinking is that it’s self-defeating for all us same boaters. The Oklahoman just wants us to accept our same-boat low wages and get over it. Let’s all bask in our low wages and poverty, people.

It also proposes absolutely nothing of value when it comes to the critical issue of our teacher shortage problem here. Education officials have estimated there are 1,000 unfilled teaching positions in the state, primarily because teachers trained and educated at Oklahoma colleges seek higher-paying jobs in other states. If education funding is cut further for next fiscal year—Oklahoma has cut education funding the most of any state since 2008—then that number could grow even more and what we’ll have here is not a crisis but a full-fledged disaster.

So that whole issue of low salaries for teachers has really nothing to do with how much someone makes working at a convenience store in Adair County. It has to do with educating our children to make sure they get off the ship of fools.

Fallin Approves Petty Attack On Teachers

Teacher appreciation day

Gov. Mary Fallin has signed into law a nasty, petty little bill targeting the professional organizations of state teachers that tells the true story of how she feels about state educators.

The story is that she doesn’t want teachers to have a voice in education in this state, which faces a massive teacher shortage—1,000 and counting—and has cut education funding by approximately 24 percent since 2008, the most in the nation. Teachers here make some of the lowest salaries in the nation, but their so-called “unions” are so mighty and powerful they need to be punished, right?

Fallin couldn’t even attend the education rally last Monday at the state Capitol, but she did find time on Thursday to sign into law House Bill 1749. The bill prohibits state agencies from deducting membership dues from employees for professional organizations. The bill is directly targeted at what the bill’s supporters call Oklahoma teacher “unions,” particularly the Oklahoma Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers.

The bill’s strongest supporters claim the state shouldn’t be helping the interests of unions that bargain for better pay and benefits.

Here are the fallacies of the argument: (1) There is no extra cost associated with deducting money from employees’ paychecks. Virtually all institutions and companies deduct various amounts of taxes, insurance costs, charity donations and other monies from paychecks. Once the deduction is established, it’s simply a matter of clicking a computer key to generate a paycheck. The point is that the dues deductions are not costing taxpayers any extra money for teachers’ paychecks. (2) If OEA and AFT are such powerful bargaining unions, then why do our public teachers’ salaries here consistently rank as the lowest 49th or 48th in the nation? The fact is that these two professional organizations don’t actually do much bargaining at all, except to call attention to how education funding overall in the state is perhaps the most inadequate in the nation taking into account all the circumstances and the state’s historical record.

It’s difficult not to see this pettiness by Fallin and the state’s lawmakers as the lingering effect of the crushing 2010 defeat of State Question 744, which would have required the state to fund education at the regional average. Democrat and former Gov. Brad Henry and even the Oklahoma Policy Institute, often cited as a left-leaning think tank by The Oklahoman editorial board, joined with the right-wing in Oklahoma, and the question was defeated with more than 80 percent of the vote.

Henry’s barrage of television “just-say-no” advertisements and OKPolicy’s relentless arguments against “average” funding for education were celebrated by the right-wing here and used as their main weapon in defeating the measure by such a lopsided margin. It’s important to remember here that the “just-say-no” language was made famous by the late right-winger and former President Ronald Reagan and his wife Nancy in their campaign against drug abuse.

That lopsided vote margin on SQ 744 made it clear to the right-wing that they can basically do what they want to do when it comes education. It completely took away any agency or voice educators might have when it comes to establishing policy. Any serious attempt to really raise teacher salaries here will be met with the same cacophony of voices. The right-wing won’t even have to do anything. They can just allow Democrats like Henry and the think tank OKPolicy to do their dirty work.

In the end, this bill might not do much on the practical level in terms of membership dues for OEA and AFT, but it does create animosity and discourages teachers from working here. Why teach in Oklahoma when you can go to another state and make much more money and get treated with respect?

Here in Oklahoma, our taxpayer-funded colleges train some of the brightest teachers in the world, and then many leave the state and take their talents with them. I want people to “just say no” to that self-defeating cycle, but don’t expect anything to happen soon.

How Many Teachers Will Fallin Erase?

Teachers by André Carrilho on Flickr

The fact that Gov. Mary Fallin didn’t show up at the education rally at the state Capitol Monday shows her flippant attitude towards a massive decline in education funding here and her belief she and most of her fellow Republican lawmakers think voters will side with them on the issue.

Thousands of educators showed up at the state Capitol to protest a crisis in education that has led to obscenely low teacher salaries, a major teacher shortage and completely inadequate funding of public schools. The numbers are fluid, but there’s no doubt teacher pay ranks near the bottom among the states in the country, either 49th or 48th, there are approximately 1,000 teaching vacancies in Oklahoma and education funding has dropped by nearly 24 percent since 2008.

Conservatives, such as staffers from the right-wing Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, try to muddle the issues by citing federal monies that go to school, arguing the overall funding issue paints a different picture of the issue, but their ongoing quest to privatize public education renders their arguments extremely suspect even though they are taken seriously by some in the local corporate media here.

As I’ve repeated for years and years, the decline in education funding here is part of a national, conservative movement to starve schools of financial support through direct cuts and attacking and “shaming” schools with predictable results of high-stakes testing at impoverished schools. Private companies often administrate these tests. It’s collusion. Testing companies crave bad results because that leads to even more tests that show bad results. Meanwhile, the state this year is directly attacking teachers personally here by trying to pass a measure that would prohibit the state from taking out dues from their paychecks for their professional organizations. It’s petty, true, but it’s effective in telling teachers this: Get out of Oklahoma. You’re not wanted here. Take your college degrees and commitment to teaching and get out. Move to Texas or Colorado.

A spokesperson for the no-show Fallin, according to a media report, said “ The governor made it clear she was excited to have them at the Capitol.” Note “them.” Why didn’t the spokesperson just use the term “The Other.” Later, in a press release, Fallin said, “Our educators have one of the most difficult and important jobs out there. I appreciate their service to the state and their commitment to our children. It’s great to see so many of them out here today getting involved in education policy.”

Fallin’s language is so generic to me it seems almost passive aggressive. In a psychological sense, it can be read in these more basic terms: Oh, you great people. We just really really like you. We like you even though you know this is just lip service. WE LIKE YOU. We really do. It’s patronizing.

Fallin has pointed to small funding increases in recent years as her commitment to education, but it’s simply not enough money to make any dent in the major crisis the state faces.

I’ll reiterate in a somewhat different way from what I said Monday. This battle has to be won in elections on the local and state level. If that can’t be the case because of prevailing political sentiment and/or a lack of political commitment or victory by education supporters, then if I had school-age children I would look for other education options in other states.

With the state facing a $611 million budget shortfall, which I predict will grow to close to $1 billion before the carnage in the oil patch subsides, all state agencies will be facing cuts under the Republican agenda, which places tax cuts for the wealthy above the future of its students. That will mean more teacher shortages, larger class sizes and shoddy equipment in classrooms.

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