Hunter Alexander calls his decision to leave his teaching job in Oklahoma for one in Northwest Arkansas the toughest he’s had to make in his career.
Alexander grew up in Oklahoma and, after graduating from the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, moved back to his home state so he and his wife could be close to family.
He worked for Union Public Schools in the Tulsa area as an art teacher and tennis coach for four years. His wife worked as an X-ray technician.
After the couple had a child in fall 2015, they agreed his wife should stay at home with the baby. Alexander, however, wasn’t making enough to support all three of them.
“I didn’t want to leave,” he said. “It just got to the point, for my wife and I to do what was best for my family, that was a decision that had to be made.”
It’s a decision with which many educators in Oklahoma have wrestled. Frustration with the state’s level of funding for education led to a two-week walkout by educators this month, demanding legislators address the issue.
Alexander landed a job as a teacher and coach at the Benton-ville School District’s West High School in Centerton to start the 2016-17 school year. He’s making about $18,000 more than he did in Oklahoma, he said.
A teacher with no experience and a bachelor’s degree in the Union School District starts at $32,697 and can earn up to $49,142 after 35 years. In Bentonville, the same teacher earns $45,714 in year one and $57,734 in year 25, according to both districts’ salary schedules.
Watching from afar what’s happening in Oklahoma has been “heartbreaking,” Alexander said.
“The system is broken. The teachers are tired of it, and the parents are tired of it,” he said.
The average salary of an Oklahoma teacher in 2016 was $45,276, which ranked 49th among the 50 states and the District of Columbia. Arkansas ranked 38th with an average teacher salary of $48,218, according to data from the National Education Association.
The Oklahoma Legislature approved a $6,100 raise on average for teachers last month. Gov. Mary Fallin called it the largest teacher pay raise in state history and praised legislators for supporting it.
“Those voting yes answered the call from the public by voting teachers a pay raise and putting the state on a solid foundation for the future,” Fallin stated in a March 28 news release.
Fallin’s office issued another news release April 12 saying the raise increases Oklahoma’s teacher pay from the lowest to second among a seven-state region and up to 29th from 49th nationally. Fallin also signed a bill last month allocating $2.9 billion for K-12 public education for the 2019 fiscal year, a 19.7 percent increase from this fiscal year’s appropriation for public schools, she said.
Oklahoma spends $8,075 per pupil while Arkansas spends $9,805 per pupil, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
The funding increase approved last month didn’t stop many educators from walking out of their schools and marching on the state Capitol. The Oklahoma Education Association insisted the Legislature do more to increase funding not only for teacher and support staff salaries, but for education in general.
“Legislators can and should do more for our students this year, next year and the year after,” said Alicia Priest, the association’s president, in a video posted online April 11.
HIRING IN STATE’S NW
Some educators are moving from Oklahoma to Northwest Arkansas, though it appears to be a modest number.
Dena Ross, chief operating officer of the Bentonville School District, said five of about 150 educators the district hired for this school year came from Oklahoma. The Fayetteville School District hired 100 teachers last year, three of whom came from Oklahoma, according to Greg Mones, human resources director.
Roger Hill, human resources director for the Rogers School District, provided information just prior to last school year showing 10 of the district’s 109 newly hired educators came from Oklahoma. Hill said he didn’t have those numbers for the current school year.
Jared Cleveland, deputy superintendent for the Springdale School District, said Springdale gets numerous applicants every year from Oklahoma. He said he believed the number of applicants has increased in recent years, but he’d have to review district data to be sure.
Closer to the state line, in the Siloam Springs School District, Superintendent Ken Ramey said for several years he’s seen a “steady stream” of teachers from Oklahoma come to work in Siloam Springs schools.
“We’ve seen very capable Oklahoma-trained teachers cross the border and help us,” Ramey said. “They feel very devalued over there and feel it’s almost a forgotten profession.”
Twelve of the 79 teachers Siloam Springs has hired over the past two years came from Oklahoma, according to Ramey.
A 2016 report by the Arkansas Bureau of Legislative Research showed a precipitous decline in the number of people enrolled in teacher preparation programs, from 8,255 in 2010 to 5,258 in 2015, a 36 percent drop.
Ramey feels fortunate to receive employees from Oklahoma. John Brown University in Siloam Springs also produces education graduates who come to work for the district, he said.
“We’ve been able to fill a lot of slots with young people from John Brown University and veterans out of Oklahoma,” Ramey said.
Three of Siloam Springs’ principals have Oklahoma roots. Teresa Morgan, principal of Siloam Springs Middle School, joined the district in 2001 after 17 years of teaching in Vinita, Okla.
“I came here for the opportunity and knowing in the long run, it was going to be a good move,” Morgan said. “To see the difference between Oklahoma and Arkansas was amazing to me.”
“We’ve seen very capable Oklahoma-trained teachers cross the border and help us. They feel very devalued over there and feel it’s almost a forgotten profession.”
— Siloam Springs School District Superintendent Ken Ramey