Texas School Districts Eye Oklahoma's Striking Teachers

A school bus passes a group of striking teachers in Tulsa, Oklahoma on April 2.

A school bus passes a group of striking teachers in Tulsa, Oklahoma on April 2. Shutterstock

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The era of gouged school finances and interstate “teacher poaching” continues.

The Oklahoma teacher strike that started Monday is on course to last a while, and every day it continues, the temptation on the part of deeply frustrated Sooner State teachers to flee south to higher-paying Texas school districts is sure to grow.

Indeed, savvy Texas school district administrators are already honing their sales pitches as they watch events unfold in Oklahoma City.  

On Tuesday, nearly 200 of the state’s 550 school districts remained closed while thousands of teachers gathered at the State Capitol to continue protesting years of tax breaks and budget cuts that have frayed school finances and left teachers to make do with salaries that have dropped to the third-lowest in the nation. Teachers and the state employees supporting them are demanding lawmakers come up with $3.3 billion over the next three years to boost school budgets and to fund pay raises for all of the state’s public employees. Oklahoma’s lawmakers failed even to take up the issue Monday.

Muskogee, Oklahoma, school librarian Gina Batie told KRLD Radio in Dallas that Oklahoma teachers are looking to head south. "We're calling it 'the great Texodus,’” she said.  

Texas ranks 27th among the states in average teacher pay.

Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings told KRLD that he welcomed Oklahoma’s teachers to come south and made a special pitch to the Sooner State’s best and brightest. He called attention to bonus packages available through the Dallas school district’s Teacher Excellence Initiative program.

“We have an opportunity for the teachers to make real money," Rawlings said. "If they're great performers, they need to make great money, just like our other professionals."

NBC affiliate KXAS picked up the story of Shawn Sheehan, Oklahoma’s 2016 Teacher of the Year. Last year, Sheehan moved to Lewisville in North Texas with his wife, Kaysi, also a high school teacher. They said that, with Texas salaries, their household income leapt by roughly $40,000.

“We stopped hoping and praying that Oklahoma would do the right thing for its educators and for its citizens,” said Sheehan. “We took matters into our own hands and made the move south.”

…The couple says it’s tough to see their fellow educators back in Oklahoma struggling. “I hope the public knows that Oklahoma educators aren’t starting with a strike. This isn’t step one. Not by a long shot. This is step one thousand and one.”

…Kaysi says she went from teaching 172 students a semester to 90. With smaller class sizes, the high school English teacher says she can spend more time with each student. Job satisfaction, along with pay, was a factor for the couple.

The couple says the move to Texas was a last resort. They say they’d joined fellow teachers in rallies, advocated for one penny sale tax increase to fund schools and Shawn Sheehan even ran for office.

Don’t be surprised if Houston’s school district representatives set up shop soon right across from the Oklahoma State Capitol.

In 2014, Houston wooed teachers in North Carolina reeling from frozen salaries by holding job recruitment fairs in Charlotte, Greensboro and Raleigh. According to The Charlotte Observer, the Houston district reps conducted interviews on the spot and made job offers to teachers “certified in any of four critical shortage areas: secondary math, secondary science, bilingual education and special education.”

At the time, average teacher salaries in North Carolina ranked 46th in the nation, and tax-averse lawmakers there were struggling to agree on school finance figures and how to pay for any proposed teacher salary raises.

“It’s easy pickings to go to North Carolina,” Gayle Fallon, president of the Houston Federation of Teachers, said at the time. “The salary scale looks phenomenal to them.”

In 2008, it was California’s turn.

Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, looking to close a $20 billion budget shortfall, was pushing a $4.8 billion cut to education funding. Districts across the state laid off thousands of teachers. The Los Angeles Times reported that the flood of pink slips drew recruiters from across the country.

“Districts in Arizona, Nevada, Hawaii, Kansas, Virginia and Texas have been buying newspaper ads and renting billboard space, calling teachers unions and sending recruiters to regions facing the biggest school budget crunches,” the L.A. Times reported.  

California Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell lamented the arrival of the “raiding parties.” "We must stop the era of teacher poaching and make sure we fully compensate, respect and value our teachers," he said.

That was 10 years ago, the same year Oklahoma teachers last received a pay raise.

John Tomasic is a journalist who lives in Seattle.

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