broke teacherGiving Oklahoma’s teachers a pay raise has been proclaimed as one of the highest priorities of legislators and Governor Mary Fallin this session. Despite a $1.3 billion budget shortfall and the near certainty of cuts to all state agencies, including common education, multiple pay raise plans have been proposed. Whether any plan becomes reality — and how that impacts this year’s initiative petition campaign for a teacher pay raise funded by a 1 percent sales tax — remains to be seen.

It has now been eight years since the Oklahoma Legislature approved an increase in the teacher salary schedule. Oklahoma’s average teacher compensation is now less than $45,000, including benefits, which is third lowest in the nation and below all of our neighboring states. The starting teacher salary of$31,606 is higher than ten other states but $7,000 lower than in Texas.

Low teacher salaries are harming schools’ ability to recruit and retain qualified teachers. As salaries stagnate, teacher turnover rates are increasing and average teacher experience is declining, a recent study by University of Tulsa economist Matthew Hendrick showed. Currently, more than one in six teachers in Oklahoma is “unqualified,” meaning they are teaching without a standard certification, according to the  Oklahoma Equity Plan submitted to the State Department of Education. This year, the State Department of Education has issued close to 1,000 emergency certifications just to fill open positions. As one Superintendent who was seeking to replace vacancies for special education teachers said, “This crisis has been coming for a long time. Forget about replacing them with someone of the same quality. I’m just worried about replacing them. Period.”

In response to the Legislature’s repeated failure to fund competitive salaries for teachers, a group headed by University of Oklahoma President David Boren announced an initiative petition effort to increase education funding though a one-percent increase in the state sales tax. The proposal, SQ 779, is expected to generate $615 million annually. It would allocate 59.8 percent of total revenues, some $370 million, to provide every school teacher a $5,000 raise.  The remaining funds would be allocated to a variety of educational purposes, including various common education reform initiatives (9.5 percent of the total revenue), higher education (19.25 percent), CareerTech (3.25 percent), and early childhood education (8 percent).  Supporters have 90 days beginning on February 16th to collect 123,000 signatures to place the measure on the November 2016 ballot.

The initiative petition effort, which enjoys strong popular support in initial polling, has left some lawmakers scrambling for an alternative. At least six proposals have been introduced:

  • In her State of the State address, Gov. Mary Fallin proposed a $3,000 teacher pay raise. Her FY 2017 budget allocates $178 million to pay for  the raise but doesn’t identify a dedicated funding source. However, her budget  recommends a $1.50-per-pack increase in the cigarette tax, which would raise almost the same amount ($181.6 million) as the pay raise. At the same time as she proposes a teacher pay raise, the Governor’s budget includes a 3 percent cut to common education, which would reduce funding to schools by $73 million.
  • Rep. Doug Cox (R-Grove), Chair of the House Health Appropriations committee, also proposes a $1.50 per-pack cigarette tax increase in bills he filed this session (HB 2498, HB 2505, and HJR 1058). Of the total revenue from the new tax, two-thirds — or roughly $120 million — would go for teacher stipends, with the remainder used for health insurance coverage through the  Insure Oklahoma program.
  • Sen. David Holt (R-Oklahoma City) has a plan, laid out in six bills and resolutions, that promises to provide a $10,000 pay raise for every teacher over several years. The plan is expected to raise $400 million through multiple sources short of a direct tax increase, including dedicating all new tax revenue after FY 2017 to teacher pay increases; eliminating tax credits, deductions and exemptions based on legislative recommendations offered during the 2017 session; and savings from school consolidation.
  • Sen. AJ Griffin (R-Guthrie) and Rep. Josh Cockcroft (R-Tecumseh) have proposed a $5,000 across-the-board pay raise for high school math and science teachers in SB 1422, but they have not identified a funding source.
  • Rep Mike Rogers (R- Broken Arrow ) has proposed HB 3154 that would boost the teacher salary schedule by freezing the amount the state and school districts pay for teacher health benefits.
  • Sen. Bryce Marlatt (R- Woodward) has proposed a series of bills (SB 1523, SB 1568 and SJR 69) that would provide for earnings from the Tobacco Settlement Trust Fund to be used for teacher pay raises.

“Having failed to give teachers a raise when the state’s energy sector and overall economy were booming, it seems unlikely that the Legislature will find a way to get this done during one of the worst budget years in state history.”

The fundamental challenge for all the legislative proposals is how to pay for them. Any tax increase will be hard-pressed to gain the three-quarters legislative supermajority required under SQ 640, especially when new revenues will be needed just to stave off massive budget cuts. On the other hand, funding a pay raise without new taxes is unlikely to be feasible. Sen. Holt’s proposal, for example, calls for directing all new revenue growth after FY 2017 towards education, which disregards the increased costs the state must assume to fund health care, human services, public safety, and other core government functions. It also depends on finding $200 million in savings from existing tax preferences, which in practice would very likely mean a substantial tax increase for the hundreds of thousands of Oklahomans who receive broad-based credits such as the Child Tax Credit and Sales Tax Relief Credit.

None of the teacher pay raise proposals has yet to be heard in committee, and it is possible that next week’s bill committee deadline will pass without any plan moving forward in the Legislature. Having failed to give teachers a raise when the state’s energy sector and overall economy were booming, it seems unlikely that the Legislature will find a way to get this done during one of the worst budget years in state history.