For nine days, teachers in West Virginia went on strike to protest their low pay and benefits. The strike began when West Virginia Governor Jim Justice signed a bill that would give teachers just a 2 percent raise in the coming fiscal year and an additional 1 percent in 2020 and 2021 – which would not be enough to keep up with inflation or the rising cost of health care premiums. The strike ended after the Governor signed a bill providing a 5 percent raise for teachers and state employees.
Going into this showdown, the average teacher salary and benefits in West Virginia was $45,622, according to data from the National Education Association. That put them 48th in the nation out of all 50 states and the District of Columbia. Teachers in West Virginia made less than teachers in all but three states: South Dakota, Mississippi, and…Oklahoma.
With the 5 percent raise, teachers in West Virginia should see their average compensation rise to about $47,900, to rank 42nd in the nation just above Kansas. For Oklahoma teachers to reach that level, they would need a 5.8 percent raise (about $2,630 on average).
However, going beyond teacher pay, Oklahoma’s overall education funding picture is actually significantly worse than in West Virginia. When it comes to total per pupil K-12 spending, West Virginia spends 40 percent more per pupil than Oklahoma, according to the U.S. Census. West Virginia spends significantly more than Oklahoma on all major categories, including instruction ($6,501 per pupil in West Virginia compared to $4,466 in Oklahoma), teacher and student support services ($3,330 versus $2,353), and administration ($826 versus $686).
West Virginia only has about 40 percent as many students enrolled in public schools as Oklahoma and only about 10 percent as many school districts. But after adjusting for enrollment, West Virginia schools actually employ 15.4 percent more teachers and 35.5 percent more administrators than Oklahoma schools.
“After adjusting for enrollment, West Virginia schools actually employ 15.4 percent more teachers and 35.5 percent more administrators than Oklahoma schools.”
So improving teacher pay is important, but it’s not the whole story. As we’ve highlighted, budget cuts have hit all aspects of public education, from teacher pay to class sizes, program offerings, librarians and school counselors, and more.
In this context, it should be no surprise that Oklahoma teachers are planning to follow the example of West Virginia, organizing a walk-out to put pressure on the Oklahoma Legislature to raise revenues. Their task is both more urgent and more difficult. The failure of Oklahoma to fund education is long-standing, and a one-time boost in pay – while sorely needed – will not be enough to address the deep problems education funding cuts have created in Oklahoma. Nor will it fix the extreme supermajority requirement that has put Oklahoma on this path and prevented lawmakers from passing any solutions.
Oklahomans are as fed up with the budget mess as our teachers, and it’s likely that a teacher walkout will be popular, at least initially. But it will put pressure on kids and create real hardships for Oklahoma families. For the walkout to be worth the cost, teachers and all Oklahomans need revenue increases substantial enough to address Oklahoma’s chronic underfunding of education and many other critical services. That’s why the Oklahoma Education Association has announced that a comprehensive revenue solution will be needed to prevent or end the walkout. They are joined by many state employees, who, like teachers, have watched state budget cuts erode their ability to do their jobs.
Oklahoma kids deserve well-qualified, well-paid teachers. They also deserve manageable class sizes, access to arts, foreign language, and other advanced programs, school counselors and librarians, five-day school weeks, up to date textbooks, and essential supports from social services, public safety, and health care providers. Yet all of these have been cut again and again in Oklahoma for years now, which is why teachers have been driven to more direct tactics for change.
Ordinary tactics haven’t worked to save our state and protect Oklahoma kids. The walkout may be our last and best hope to bring the progress that Oklahoma so desperately needs.