SPECIAL REPORT: A Tale of Two Teachers

(Source:KAUZ)
(Source:KAUZ)

VERNON,TX(RNN Texoma) - As teachers in Oklahoma continue to fight for higher pay and school funding, others are moving to Texas classrooms for better opportunities. In Southwest Oklahoma, the Texas border is just a short drive away. And that short distance can make a big difference.

Robin Storey has been teaching for more than 30 years.

She taught 2nd grade for 28 years in Altus. Before that, two years in Atoka, Oklahoma.

After retiring from Oklahoma, she now teaches 4th and 5th-grade special education math in Vernon, Texas, at Shives Elementary, but she still lives in Altus, 35 miles away from her school.

"It's about 45 minutes every morning and afternoon," Storey said. "We just travel, my husband and I. We are doing it together, so it's not too bad."

Her husband teaches math at Vernon High School. The couple's commute makes for about an 11-hour work day.

"In fact, we thought we would move here," Storey said.

But caring for their parents is one of the reasons they decided to stay.

"We have been going back home each night, and that way we are able to care for them and help do the things that we need to do," she said.

Like plan for the future. She knew if she worked in Texas for five years, she could have another retirement.

"Where if I just stayed in Oklahoma with no raise, it just wasn't as beneficial," Storey said.

She adds the higher pay and better retirement options are just some of the reasons she finds herself in Texas, alongside other teachers who have made the jump from Oklahoma.

"I have several friends that have gone to the Dallas-Fort Worth area, I even know some that have started just right out of college that has gone to the Houston area and are getting, as a new teacher salary, like $60,000," she said.  "In Oklahoma, I still haven't made that yet."

She adds educators make $3,000 to $5,000 more right across the border, with fewer students in the classroom.

"I do have one class as 22.  That's my largest, and then I have one class that has 17," Storey said.

When she left Oklahoma three years ago, she had 25 to 27 students.

"I will tell you, anytime you get over 20, it makes a big difference.  You know, grading papers or just having the kids in the classroom," she said.

Having more supplies is another plus. Even the little things, like crayons and big-ticket items like textbooks.

"Right now we have more current textbooks than we do right now in Oklahoma because there's just not the funds," Storey said.

She said her heart goes out to her fellow educators fighting for their students in Oklahoma.

"It almost makes me want to cry because I'm very proud of them," Storey said.

There are a few main reasons teachers consider when moving from their job in Oklahoma to Texas.

One of them is income. A Cache, Okla. teacher makes $31,000 starting out. Over the state line in Vernon, Texas starting pay is around $35,000. When you factor in time teaching, Texas teachers can earn more than the teacher in Oklahoma, so the salary gap gets wider.

Compared to the rest of the U.S. on average Texas is ranked number 27 in teacher pay and Oklahoma sits at 49 as of 2016. That's according to the National Education Association.

Class sizes in Oklahoma have been growing over the past ten years. A Cache teacher has seen her class average jump from mid-twenties to 28 to 30 kids. A Vernon teacher has no more than 22 kids in one class.

Money for supplies is something that is all too common in Oklahoma classrooms. A few purchases are made here and there for our teacher in Vernon but most are provided by the district.

But in Cache, thousands are spent every year in the classroom on simple things like books, glue sticks and paper.

That has many teachers fed up, including Robin Muse, a 5th-grade reading teacher at Cache Public Schools.

"I don't blame people for going to Texas and other places," said Muse. "It's a better opportunity financially."

Robin Muse, a 5th generation southwest Oklahoman and a teacher of 18 years, back in school after marching with teachers at the Oklahoma state capitol.

She said there was plenty of things that made her get up and march. They mostly traced back to providing for her students.

"Teachers do what they have to do because we want our kids to be successful," Muse said.

Muse remembers when funding wasn't an issue.

"I can tell you when I first started teaching we had a nice supply closet that was full of stuff," Muse remembers. "They gave you $100 a year to spend on your classroom, whatever you needed. If you needed something, the school was able to buy it for you. Whatever you need. When it's time to get textbooks, we adopted them. And the school had the funding to do that."

But then the tides started to turn about ten years ago.

"First, it was we don't have the money to adopt new textbooks," Muse said. "So, we had to make do with the ones we have. Over time those became obsolete. Because in the last couple of years, we've gone to completely new standards."

Then the supply closet, depleted. The $100 for classroom supplies, gone.

"We start trying to find things, pool things, figure things out," Muse said. "Because we think eventually the money will come back. Maybe this is just temporary. Maybe we'll get money to get new textbooks."

Muse said teachers started to go work on the side. She sells homemade signs with her husband. Other teachers get a part-time job.

"It's almost like you have to do something extra," Muse said.

Muse said she comes from a family of teachers, so she isn't the only one to see state education funding drop, including stagnant teacher salary.

"Just for an example, my mom, who has been teaching for 35 years, and I almost make the same. And she has a master's degree," Muse said. "I didn't expect to get rich, but I did expect to get a living wage."

With the teacher walkout over, there is still concern about Oklahoma classrooms, like Muse's, catching up to the rest of the U.S. and even to schools across the Red River.

"We have to do something to make it better for ourselves and for the future," Muse said. "Future teachers, future students. If we don't do something now, we are going to continue to lose teachers."

The teacher walkout in Oklahoma lasted nine days, and 50 million dollars was passed for education spending along with a $6,000 pay raise passed just before the statewide protest.

Meanwhile, some Texas school districts, like the Wichita Falls Independent School District, are making it easier for out-of-state teachers to move their way for more opportunities.

Right now they are offering probationary contracts that give educators a year to get certified to teach in Texas.

Copyright 2018 RNN Texoma. All Rights Reserved.