As Oklahoma teachers plan to follow West Virginia in walkout, they confront a funding crisis that’s much worse

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.

[pullquote]“After adjusting for enrollment, West Virginia schools actually employ 15.4 percent more teachers and 35.5 percent more administrators than Oklahoma schools.”[/pullquote]

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.

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Gene Perry worked for OK Policy from 2011 to 2019. He is a native Oklahoman and a citizen of the Cherokee Nation. He graduated from the University of Oklahoma with a B.A. in history and an M.A. in journalism.

9 thoughts on “As Oklahoma teachers plan to follow West Virginia in walkout, they confront a funding crisis that’s much worse

  1. Oklahoma is not OK. How can we be proud of our state when we de-value education so much. Please legislators fix this mess nnot just as an temporary bandaid but a long term solution. It only took West Virginia 9 days. Don’t put our state to shame again by ignoring this problem. It will not go away!!!

  2. I am ashamed of our state leaders and lawmakers. Do your job! Provide funding to support students and teachers and our support staff. We are losing ground. Our children and grandchildren deserve MORE! Thanks you for those who have tried to help. Let’s NEVER give up.

  3. it sounds so great “pay teachers more”. But id like to know at what cost? where will they get the money from ? which areas will have less money? Teachers in oklahoma get paid 46k AND have 3 months off where they can work like most of us do all year? Sounds like a good deal to me.

  4. I am curious where the $45k average comes from for Oklahoma teachers?? Is that with administration figured into the mix?? I have been teaching in Oklahoma for 19 years with a Masters degree, and my salary was just over $42K. (Now I understand that’s close to this average.). But at the current salary schedule for teachers, I will not reach the average until I have been teaching 30 + years!!? So, how is the “average” $45k???

  5. Sherry, the average salary numbers reported by NEA also include benefits like health insurance and retirement.

  6. Hi James I would be happy to help aanswer some of your questions. (To the best of my honest ability. Iin order for a teacher to be paid $40k in the state of Oklahoma, a teacher would need to be teaching for 20 or more years. I will share with you my pay rate. I have 1 withholding. I have a family plan for 2 persons on my check for a deduction of approx $634 per month. Of which is not matched. My check per month is $1,930.00 that included a stoped of $1000 for my distric. I am contracted for 10 months out of the year. I choose to be paid for 12 months so my family does not go hungry. Yes I work extra summer jobs to supplement and I buy our own supplies out of that small pay.

  7. SQ640 should have been counterbalanced with a 75% majority required to cut taxes and we would not be having this desperate funding problem.

  8. I consistently read comments on various forums about teachers getting three months off every summer. I would love to see a school calendar that shows a 91 day (13 week) period where teachers are off during the summer. Often mentioned in those same comments are statements that teachers can then find other employment during that 13 week period. REALLY? Other than minimum wage retail or fast food jobs, who is going to hire an employee when they know that employee will soon be leaving? Name another college educated professional (often with a post graduate degree) who would willingly step out of their profession and flip burgers for a few months every year – and remember, you’ll be competing for those very same jobs with hs and college students who are also looking for temporary summer employment.
    I have an idea, how ’bout we fire the legislators ($38k for 4 months of non-production), give the teachers a $15k raise, and during their generous three months off maybe the can actually get something accomplished in OKC. The teachers will be happier and the taxpayers save $23k/legislator.

  9. I agree with Dennis Smith’s comment. I hear all the time “your job is really hard, you deserve a raise.” What I don’t hear, “How can I get into teaching? You have such a lucrative salary, and so much time off.”

    Oklahoma teachers a leaving the state. Our programs are being cut.

    It is going to be an uphill battle.

    Bring it on!

    This fight is worth having.

    April 2nd, I’ll be there.

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