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Oklahoma teachers balance budget cuts while drowning in student debt

There’s no question about it. The future of education in Oklahoma is up in the air. (KTUL)

There’s no question about it. The future of education in Oklahoma is up in the air.

There’s not a legislative session that goes by without lawmakers talking about education in our state.

Not only is Oklahoma losing teachers to surrounding states, but often the ones who decide to stick around are drowning in student debt.

First-grade teacher Stephanie Jones is one of those teachers with tens of thousands of dollars in student loan debt.

“There are going to be long term issues rising from this if we keep pushing teachers in to other states,” said Jones.

Jones has been teaching for four years. It’s a career move she didn’t take lightly. A few years ago, the single mother decided to go back to school to set an example for her son.

“I remember very distinctly sitting down and thinking, I really want to teach, I feel like I’m going to be good at it,” said Jones. “But I could go be a nurse and make 20 grand more.”

Jones followed her gut and chose education. She wound up owing about $26,000 in student debt.

“I live paycheck to paycheck,” said Jones. “I supplement my monthly income, I have a friend whose mother’s house I clean.”

On average, teachers who graduated from the state’s biggest university, the University of Oklahoma, racked up around $23,000 in student loans. It’s a debt that’s taking decades to pay off.

“Sometimes you just have to ask why?” said Vickie Lake, with OU-Tulsa.

Lake says there are ways for teachers to get their tuition reimbursed or covered. They have some great debt-forgiveness programs at her school. However, the dark budget clouds hanging over Oklahoma offer few silver linings for newly-minted teachers.

“I see fewer teachers, fewer students applying for teacher education programs, even with loan forgiveness,” said Lake.

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There are several programs and scholarships that help teachers with loan forgiveness.

Experts worry these could go away and fewer people will want to go into education. Already, that trend is happening nationally. Since 2010, the number of people studying to be a teacher has dropped 20 percent.

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Twenty percent of Jones’ monthly income goes toward paying her loans. When she chose education, Jones knew she wouldn’t get rich, but she assumed teachers would have gotten a raise by now.

“I don’t regret it, but don’t count your chickens before the eggs hatch,” said Jones.

In spite of the hardships, Jones still believes teaching is a privilege.

“That’s why I have to believe it’s coming, change is coming,” said Jones.

She chooses hope, because what other choice does she have?

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