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The Other Shortage

December 6, 2015

Other than fringe think tanks and editorialists who selectively interpret facts, Oklahomans universally understand that we have a teacher shortage. School districts have contracted  positions and increased class sizes. The State Board of Education has granted nearly 1,000 emergency certifications. Principals all over the state can tell stories of having just one applicant for key teaching positions. At times, the folder is completely empty. That’s to be expected when the starting salary for a position that we all claim to value is mired in the low 30s.

We have another shortage in Oklahoma, though. There’s another job that people who may not know better see as part-time work and with a salary mired in the 30s. Not enough people are signing up to run for the Legislature.

During the 2014 election cycle, all 101 House seats and 25 of 48 Senate seats were up for grabs. On the House side, 50 of those seats were decided without a single vote being cast. Another 15 seats were decided in the primary. That means that only 36 races made it to November.

In the Senate, eight seats were unopposed, and four were decided in the primary. That means that 13  races made it to November.

So out of 126 seats that were up for election in 2014, only 49 were contested in November. We don’t just have a teacher shortage.

2014 Legislature Elections Up for Election Unopposed Primary Only Elected in November
House 101 50 15 36
Senate 25 8 4 13
Total Seats 126 58 19 49

One thing the state was supposed to get by imposing 12-year term limits in the Legislature was frequent turnover. While this goal has been achieved in part, the fact remains that for most legislators, the toughest race is the first one. After that, there’s a better chance than not that after filing and perhaps a cursory primary race, that an incumbent won’t have to do anything between summer and fall.

The point of me saying this is not to bash those who run and serve in the Legislature. Nor is it to argue that our elected leaders are scant of money and respect, the way our teachers are. No, my point is that this job must not appeal to that many people either.

I think I understand why few people run. I never want to put my own name on a ballot. I have known candidates I respect who are consistent 80 percent of the time, and then they speak to certain groups, and their message changes. Maybe they don’t flip-flop on positions, but they soften or harden their stance, based on the size, tenacity, and influence of the group.

Candidates have to fund raise, which involves a lot of plastic chicken dinners (followed by Taco Bueno on the way home). It also involves a lot of conversations with people who have a singular agenda (such as those of us right now solely focused on the teacher shortage).

Candidates have their words twisted and their skeletons explored. There is plenty of opportunity for both to be taken out of context and provide for embarrassing (and often unnecessary) apologies.

More than these things, though, running for the Legislature is economically unfeasible for many who would probably serve their districts and the state well. I know a number of teachers and principals who would be good legislators. They’d have to give up their careers, though. That’s true for many who would consider running.

The primary duties of our representatives and senators fall between February and May. However, as with most teachers, most legislators work year-round to study issues they may want to bring into legislation at a later date. They spend time with constituent groups, including those of us concerned with education.

That leaves a small group of people who can really run for the legislature. First is people who don’t currently have careers. They could be straight out of college, retired, or perhaps just individuals who never entered the workforce in a full-time capacity. Second is people who are independently wealthy. Third would be business owners who are comfortable stepping away from day-to-day operations of their enterprise for weeks at a time.

We also need to remember that most who come from these three groups (or anyone else not captured by that description) don’t inherently have a teacher’s perspective on public policy. As Claudia Swisher pointed out last night, they may have a relative who used to be a teacher or something similar, but that’s not the same thing. Nothing replaces having those years with students.

What we need to remember is that most who serve in the Legislature do so with a significant measure of sacrifice. They’re not getting rich while serving, at least not from what the state pays them. If you have to give up your career to serve, and you’re currently making more than $38,000 a year, you’re probably not very motivated to run.

On our end, as voters, as educators and parents, we need to be beating the bushes to find candidates who get it. Some of my favorite legislators ran unopposed in 2014. Call it my reckless love for the democratic process, but I want those representatives and senators to draw opponents too. We need to find people who really support public education. Remember, they all say they do, but their votes count. So do their other actions. Some good ideas die in committee before any votes are cast.

It’s one thing to say you support testing reform, but if you have the power to kill a bill that would eliminate the travesty that is the state writing test before the House can vote on it, I don’t believe you.

It’s one thing to say you want teachers to have raises, but if you refuse to discuss either rolling back corporate tax credits or the proposal for a one-cent sales tax, I don’t believe you.

It’s one thing to show up at public schools for photo opportunities, but if you’re leading the charge to funnel public school dollars to private schools*, and you don’t want the recipients to have any of the accountability the rest of us do, you’re no friend of public education.

With Congress taking requirements of a quantitative teacher evaluation tool out of the renewal of the ESEA (now ESSA), if you refuse to budge on that half of TLE, you can’t say you’ve been listening to us either.

My point is that if we have more candidates – if more races are contested all the way to the end – then the candidates will have to listen to us. It’s not enough to have the right vote on one or two key issues. Every legislator is either helping to curb the teacher shortage or making it worse – whether actively or passively.

Our elected leaders deserve our thanks and respect for choosing to serve us. We deserve their attention and understanding. Don’t settle for less.

*Update – The previous version of this post stated that certain legislators want to funnel public school dollars to private schools and homeschool families. The current version of HB 609, which was held over from the 2015 Legislative session, does not include ESAs for homeschooling. This is an important distinction. While that doesn’t mean the bill won’t be amended, it is my understanding that many in the homeschool lobby would prefer to be left out of the bill altogether.

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  1. December 12, 2015 at 5:30 pm
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