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StateImpact Ohio: Teachers Leaving Classrooms

Efforts to reform education in Ohio are not sitting well with a lot of the teachers whose performance lawmakers say they're trying to improve. And though some of those changes are months - or even years - away, they're having an effect now, including an exodus of older teachers from the classroom. Sally Schuler's garage is full of homemade board games, posters on how to bake chocolate crumble cookies, poems about snails and cars "Here's one about war, Adam Schultz, red-headed kid, that was back in 1983," Schuler says. Just like that, she remembers a middle school student she hasn't seen in nearly 30 years. Schuler is retiring after 32 years of teaching in Olmsted Falls southwest of Cleveland. "I didn't want to do it but I did." Schuler says that because of proposed changes to the teacher pension system, it makes no financial sense for her to keep working. Those changes would take away incentives to keep teachers in the classroom for at least 35 years, and delay cost of living adjustments for the first five years of retirement. None of those proposals is on the books yet. But Schuler has done the math, and, in retirement, she'll be making "as much as or nearly as much as I did teaching," Schuler says. Add to that the pay freeze and changes in benefits in the three-year contract her union just signed. "We have been paying 10 % of our insurance premiums but now we're paying 15%. But the tradeoff was language to protect teachers." But for all the financial calculations, Schuler says emotion is also pushing her to get out of the classroom now. She looks at a picture of her sixth-grade class in Cleveland schools back in 1966 (Sounds of her bringing the photos out, moving them around) "I'm right here. The geeky looking kid." She says back then education had value for more than just the geeks. "School was important to parents today parents don't feel the same." And that's not the only problem. "Education has become so politically connected with the voter. We tend to please the voter more than do what's right for the child." So Schuler is leaving. And she isn't alone. The State Teachers Retirement System says the monthly average of retirement applications has gone up by more than 11 percent since last year. The pension fund doesn't ask why. But to Pam Higgins, it's clear. "When did we become the bad guys in this? And that just demoralizes you after a while and you just think okay, I've had enough.'" She's retiring after 35 years with Cleveland schools - driven out, she says, by the angry rhetoric in the Statehouse and elsewhere about overpaid, underperforming teachers. "Not that I'll go quietly into the sunset. What it does is leave more time for me to be more politically active," Higgins says. Politically active to work against one of the most heated education changes: Senate Bill 5. The bill would severely curtail collective bargaining for all public employees - cops, firefighters, trash collectors as well as teachers. Lawmakers passed it and the governor signed it into law this spring. But a referendum petition has stalled its implementation. Still, the bill - which forbids pay raises and layoffs based on seniority - is already having an effect. For one thing, parts of it are incorporated into the state budget. For another, teachers unions can't be sure they'll be able to overturn it in the fall. So, according to the Ohio School Boards Association, more than three times as many unions have signed contracts this year as last. School Board's Van Keating says many of those include pay and benefit concessions. "It's a rather unprecedented time frame for school negotiations to have this many freezes," Keating says. The unions say they recognize Ohio's new state budget is slashing funds for local schools, and they're doing their part to help. But Matt Maloy of the conservative Buckeye Institute says that's not enough. "If we don't do a base pay reduction, you're going to have to raise taxes in order to afford the base pay that's just going up and up and up," Maloy says. He insists he's not picking on teachers. "Teachers do a great job in Ohio, and we value them. We just can't afford the ever increasing packages that have been paid over the last two decades." But retiring teacher Pam Higgins says she doesn't feel very valued. She takes comfort, though, in the thought that she's leaving room for young, talented teachers in the classrooms. "I look at it as an opportunity for another teacher to not be laid off, for a younger teacher who needs the job, to have the job." But that also means losing some experienced, dedicated teachers who have honed their craft for years.