Fox 25 Special Report: the State of Education

From the teacher shortage, to freedom in the classroom, schools across Oklahoma are suffering as the state looks for solutions.

Our journey begins in Alex, Oklahoma, as we head into the trenches, where teachers serve as the front lines of the education emergency.

The heart of a community

Schools today are called on to do more with less, especially in districts like Alex.

"Lots of guys go a lot further than I do," Landon Lewis said as we boarded his bus on a crisp fall morning, "I think one of the routes is about 30 miles one way."

Lewis arrives at work before dawn to drive a bus for Alex Public Schools. But he is not a bus driver by trade; his day job is teaching music. "I wouldn't trade the years I've been teaching for anything," Lewis said.

Many of the faculty and staff at Alex wear multiple hats. Take the elementary principal Isaac Byrne, who not only runs his building but he's also the co-athletic director and transportation director. "During the course of the day I've got to work on scheduling athletic events, scheduling transportation all those types of things so the day can go pretty quickly," Byrne told Fox 25. Byrne took a job in Alex because it is home. He went to school in the rural community and his family still operates a farm there. "All but about 10 years of my life I've been here in Alex."

We came to Alex to see what makes a small school tick, and because more than 60 percent of all kids in Oklahoma go to a school that has less than a thousand students.

"This probably was not a place I would look," Charissa Byrne, the Alex guidance counselor said, "But I wouldn't change it." Charissa is a city girl and worked in the Oklahoma City metro before her husband, Isaac, wanted to move back home to Alex.

"I think every teacher in a large school or every administrator in a large school should visit and take the role of a small school teacher and administrator," Charissa said.

Alex is working to combat the teacher shortage by offering retention bonuses to keep current teachers from leaving the profession and offering smaller signing bonuses to new teachers. Isaac Byrne said it may be a tough sell initially, but once a teacher interviews and visits the classrooms, students and teachers they see the value in the small school.

Valerie McCauley has been teaching in Alex for 11 years and she has her master's degree.

"After working anywhere for 11 years, if you're making $35,000 a year, that's a hard pill to swallow," she said.

"Sometimes kids ask us, 'in your honest opinion should I be a teacher and it is hard for me to tell them yes," McCauley said.

McCauley's classroom is unique. It's the STEM class - which stands for science, technology, engineering and math.

"They get to learn why they're learning algebra and why they are learning biology. We try to do a little bit of the hands on in here."

Not every school in Oklahoma has a STEM class. It is funded through career tech rather than the public education fund. But in here, students get the hands-on training that's missing from classrooms focused on teaching to tests.

"It doesn't matter what field you're in, you're always thinking, you're always inventing," said Superintendent Dr. Jason James.

"We stopped teaching the things that made us great and started focusing on those bubble answer sheets and I think it is hurting our education," he said.

James says unfunded mandates and tests that promote recitation rather than retention have taken away from true educational instruction.

"If you want a society of test takers that can do multiple choice tests, then we're doing a really good job of meeting that need. I do not believe we are doing a very good job of educating the whole child," James said.

Some of the educational problems don't need more money to fix. Some do.

But most of all - in Alex, we learned what schools need most of all - is support.

"We have to come together and dial down the rhetoric of casting all the problems of society on the teacher."

And support is something the tiny town of Alex has in abundance.

"Everybody does come together whether its athletics, academics or the simple of doing some construction on the school everybody helps out."

Keith Alcorn owns the feedlot - the best bar-b-que in Alex.

He's also on the school board.

He says the community supports the school and that support keeps the entire town alive. It is the community connection that makes small schools like Alex survive.

"It doesn't matter if we're having a christmas musical our community comes out and supports our kids and without that education is very difficult," James said.

Alex has to tackle the same problems as big and little schools all over the state - but the solutions to those problems so far seem to be a one-size-fits all approach.

"We're trying to go about solving a major problem with solutions that don't have a very big impact on the problem," James said.

It's hard to know if Alex is the exception or the rule when it comes to small schools, but Dr. James believes his school's success is a team effort - from teachers pulling double duty - to the community that is fully invested in the next generation.

After our visit - the voters in Alex overwhelmingly approved a new bond measure that will help build new facilities which promise to serve both the students and community - as they continue to be partners for the future.

The pay problem

It's no secret that there are not enough teachers in Oklahoma. In the metro alone, some school districts had to resort to special measures just to keep bodies in classrooms, like recruiting teachers abroad and emergency certifications.

Why can't Oklahoma retain its teachers? Fox 25 went straight to the source for the answer, a teacher. The Oklahoma teacher of the year comes from Noman Public Schools and he's taken on a mission this year, to get teachers to love their jobs again with the hope they'll stay. Fox 25 spoke with Shawn Sheehan about the teacher shortage, and what he thinks is pushing educators out the door.

Shawn Sheehan arrived to teaching in a roundabout way. He got a degree in journalism with a plan to go into the Air Force, but a month before commissioning he was medically disqualified. Then, he started helping adults with disabilities in Oklahoma City.

"I kept seeing the same pattern of these young adults that were grossly under prepared for life after high school," said Sheehan.

So, he was inspired to inspire, and got his Master's Degree in Special Education. After going through an alternative certification process Sheehan now teaches algebra to kids with learning disabilities.

"For me it was about helping kids understand that their disability did not have to define who they were going to be," said Sheehan.

He has done good work for students in Norman public schools. Just five years in, he won Oklahoma teacher of the year.

Now, he'll spend the next 12 months out of the classroom just steps away from the State Capitol trying to foster change by boosting morale hoping that will help keep educators in classrooms.

"To me the teacher shortage isn't really surprising. We are kind of inundated with negativity surrounding the profession So, I think, I don't think, I know people are very apprehensive about pursuing as career as an educator," said Sheehan.

Sheehan looks at pictures of his students, and talks about almost leaving Oklahoma to teach somewhere else. He decided to stay to see his first students graduate. Now, he has a bigger mission-- a campaign called Teach Like Me. He started it in 2013 after hearing tired teachers trashing the profession to the very students they were educating.

"She was like, don't. The pay is too low, you are kind off not really in control of a lot of things, and you are smart enough to do something else which was kind of a slap in the face. Who sells the profession like that," said Sheehan of a conversation he once overheard.

Sheehan thinks if Oklahoma changes the way it thinks about teachers, maybe more people would want to be one. Perhaps a naive idea-- he knows some people will think so, but to Sheehan this is a place he can start.

"Yeah, pay is low, and we have to do something about that. Schools are underfunded. We need to do something about that. But, dot dot dot-- surely you teachers are here for a reason," said Sheehan.

Teacher shortages have forced districts across Oklahoma to get creative.

There is active recruitment, special projects fly teachers in from other countries, and emergency certification numbers have increased drastically. This year the state approved 842 emergency certifications; there were 280 applications in 2014, 198 in 2013, and 99 in 2012. Even after those efforts, the Oklahoma State School Board Association estimates there are one thousand unfilled positions across the state this year.

Fox 25 visited with Norman Public Schools superintendent Joe Siano who says the current process is a Band-Aid.

"I don't think it is a resolution, and I hope that nobody out there sees this emergency pathway as a resolution to the problem," said Siano.

Siano thinks the problem is twofold.-- teacher pay and job desirability.

"I know there is a sense out there where you can't throw money at it. Well, first of all, we never really tried so I would like to see what that looks like anyway," said Siano.

The goal would be to get more teachers by creating an environment where people feel they are working in a respected profession

"Who do you want in front of your child? Do you want the person that went into teaching because maybe there is nothing else I can do, or do you want the best and brightest that say, I can pick anything to be involved in, to spend my life, and I'm going to pick teaching," said Siano.

Back at the Capitol complex Sheehan keeps in contact with teachers and listens to their concerns.

"If fewer are becoming teachers, and more and more kids are in our classrooms, who is teaching them?"

He believes teachers can be brought back around as long as they know that progress is being made on those other heavy hitting issues.

$6.4 billion goes to education - where does it go?

State schools actually get $6.4 billion dollars to spend in the classroom when you add in local and federal dollars.

Of that, 43% is spent on instruction - so teachers salaries, classroom materials, etc.

Administration costs account for 7%, food and other non classroom expenses are 6%, building maintenance and faciltiies 9%, the rest 35%.

Even with 6.5 billion dollars going to the classroom, many education leaders say it's simply not enough.

We've heard it for years: Oklahoma doesn't fund education enough.

"Since 2007-2008, we've had the biggest drop in education funding and we have increased in students by about 40,000," said Oklahoma Education Association President Alicia Priest.

Teacher pay is a huge issue, but it's not just that she says.

"We need to look at our evaluation system: how much money is spent on all of these outside vendors to come in and sells us how to evaluate our teachers and administrators. All of those things drive up the cost of education," Priest said.

Problems from unfunded mandates to testing costs also add up.

For Oklahoma education leaders, this table will prove to be place where tough choices about what gets money will have to be made.

With that huge expected shortfall, budgets will get cut, including education, which gets more than 40 percent of state appropriations.

In it's latest draft request, the department is asking for an increase of $78 million, only cutting in a few areas, including grants and teacher bonuses.

Politicians, like speaker of the house Jeff Hickman says there are places to cut, evidenced by the move to pay for ACT tests for students.

"Why did we have the department spend $1.5 million and start a new program, if indeed, we knew there was this huge teacher shortage and was there a way to use those dollars for incentives, signing bonuses to put good teachers, certified teachers, in the classrooms, in front of these children," Hickman said.

The state department of Education says that money had to be spent on testing, and couldn't be allocated elsewhere.

In the world of balanced budgets, there are two main options: cut spending or raise revenue through taxes.

That's exactly what OU President David Boren has in mind.

He's touting a new, one-cent sales tax he says would bring in an addition $615 million each year, allowing for an instant $5,000 raise for teachers.

While it has support from teaching groups, asking Oklahomans to up their own taxes may be a tough sell, experts say.

New tax or no, education groups say school districts need parents now more than ever to help figure out what's best in their districts---who are seeing fewer and fewer dollars.

Amber England is the executive director for Stand for Children Oklahoma, who holds a parent university to teach parents how to do things the district would normally have to pay for.

"Make them understand why it's important for them to engage with their child's teacher and their child's principal, how the school board works, how the legislature works and how state legislators and school board members work for them," England said. They are actually their boss."

The search for solutions

"It was lively. I couldn't wait till Saturday evenings when everybody would be over town."

Boley, Oklahoma hasn't been lively in some time.

Downtown shows the results of decades of disrepair - buildings that saw history made are at risk of fading into history themselves. And while there are any number of reasons one could point to for the current conditions - one of the biggest hits came just a few years ago.

"It was kind of a blow to the community," said the mayor of the small town. "It had an effect on our economy because people when they would come to different events at the school, spent money in the communnity."

In 2007, the Boley school district voted to close the high school - by 2010 the elementary was unable to go on. The decision to close was a local one - but it still wasn't easy.

When you lose your school, you lose your basis for being almost."

So would closing schools save money? Or enough money to make a difference in education funding?

"You can save a little bit of money from that and honestly it is something that is happening the school districts have pretty steadily gone down in the past decade or two," said Gene Perry with the Oklahoma Policy Institute.

Perry doesn't believe cosolidation is the solution to the state's education woes.

"There's not an easy fix to this that doesn't involve finding more money," Perry said.

Perry says education is the biggest piece of the pie when it comes to state funding - the only problem is the pie is shrinking - and Oklahoma needs to bring in more money overall.

Byron Schlomach of the newly formed public policy research group 1889 Institute says there is no definition of what fully funded education is.

"Nobody, to my knowledge, has ever defined what underfunding is," Schlomach said. "It is quite possible with the level of funding we have right now to get a quality education."

The 1889 Institute sees school choice as the answer to fixing education - with more focus on creative education solutions through charter schools.

"If you look at charter schools in general they are much less top heavy," Schlomach said.

State Senator Kyle Loveless has a different solution - keeping every school open - but consolidating administrative expensives and sharing superintendents.

"We can have the same doing multiple jobs and guess what by having less people we can actually pay them more we can pay them probably what they deserve," Loveless said. "We're basically saying is it is more important to keep 512 superintendents employed than educating our children."

His plan would eliminate the need for many of the six-figure superintendent salaries and put the money back in the classroom, an idea he says would be a multi-million dollar boost to schools that could happen without robbing small towns of a the uniting force that keeps a community together.

Back in Boley, that sense of loss continues.

"What we've really done is lost our children and that is what keeps a town alive."

Because as Boley knows all too well coming back is much harder than getting knocked down.

"We always have hope and keeping hope alive keeps us trying to do the things to attract people back to this community."

close video ad
Unmutetoggle ad audio on off