ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Oklahoma teachers are some of the lowest paid in the nation. This year, there were high hopes that state lawmakers would come up with the money to give them a raise, but it didn't happen. And now, like so many other teachers already have, Oklahoma's 2016 teacher of the year says he is leaving the state for better pay. Emily Wendler from member station KOSU has the story.
EMILY WENDLER, BYLINE: About a year ago, I introduced you to Oklahoma's teacher of the year at the time. His name is Shawn Sheehan. He was going door to door campaigning for a state Senate seat.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
SHAWN SHEEHAN: Good morning.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Good morning.
WENDLER: Sheehan and about 40 other Oklahoma teachers were running for office. They said lawmakers weren't prioritizing education, and they wanted change.
SHEEHAN: And unfortunately it didn't go the way we had wanted.
WENDLER: Sheehan and most of the other teachers lost. Only five ended up winning. A couple months later, the legislative session started up, and...
SHEEHAN: Things started going south pretty quickly. It didn't look like they were focused on finding a proper budget for the state.
WENDLER: He says he held his breath while lawmakers duked it out. But in the end, there was no additional money for public schools or teachers. And without a raise, he just couldn't make ends meet any longer teaching in Norman, Okla. So he's leaving for Texas. He met with me at his old math classroom to talk about the move.
SHEEHAN: The new teacher actually has already started (laughter) moving in, so this is no longer my classroom. It feels good because I know I'm doing the right thing for my family. But I feel sad because, you know, I thought that I would retire teaching out of this classroom.
WENDLER: The decision was hard for Sheehan and for his wife, who's also a public school teacher. But seven months ago, they had a baby girl, and he says that was a big reason they decided to leave.
SHEEHAN: For us to raise our daughter on Oklahoma teacher salaries is near impossible.
WENDLER: Together they bring in about 3,600 a month.
SHEEHAN: So after all bills are paid, we're sitting on about $450 per month. Sure, life can be done on $400, $450 per month. But I would challenge others out there to buy diapers and groceries and all the things that you need for a family of three on $400.
WENDLER: In Texas, he and his wife will see an increase of about $40,000 a year.
SHEEHAN: We're starting at numbers that we will never, ever see in this state as educators.
WENDLER: Over the past few years, thousands of teachers in Oklahoma have left for better pay and less stress, and the State Department of Education has had to issue emergency certifications to replace them as quickly as possible. Funding for schools in the state has been cut a lot over the last decade. Textbooks are out of date. Electives have been eliminated, and support positions are being terminated right and left.
There was this hope among some of the public that lawmakers were going to do something to improve the situation this year. But elected leaders said with the state's struggling economy, keeping education funding flat was the best they could do. Sheehan says he tried to help. He ran for office. He started a nonprofit.
SHEEHAN: And I'm hitting a wall every single time. So I'm not going to keep running into that wall with my daughter in my hands.
WENDLER: So he's leaving. His successor, the 2017 Oklahoma Teacher of the Year, Jon Hazel, says he understands the frustration. But leaving isn't the answer.
JON HAZEL: You know, Oklahoma children aren't leaving the classroom, so who's going to teach them? And who's going to mentor them? And who's got to bring them up in this climate that's really tough?
WENDLER: Going to Texas isn't going to change anything in Oklahoma, Hazel says, but staying might.
HAZEL: Things are going to get better. And the way they're going to get made better is by the people who just have the grit to say, OK, these are my children; this is what I want to do, and I'm going to make this better.
WENDLER: Hazel believes teaching children and shaping their future is a privilege. He's been doing it for more than 30 years and says you can't put a dollar amount on that. Sheehan respects that idea but disagrees. He says he feels called to teach, but he also wants to be paid like a professional. For NPR News, I'm Emily Wendler in Oklahoma City.
(SOUNDBITE OF DIRTY GOLD SONG "SEA HARE")
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.