Oklahoma’s teacher shortage has resulted in more than 1,000 teacher vacancies statewide this school year and and a huge spike in emergency certifications to get teachers in the classroom, even when they don’t have the required qualifications. Why is it so difficult to get enough qualified educators in the classroom? School administrators have pointed to Oklahoma’s very low teacher salaries compared to neighboring states.
Whenever the issue is brought up, it’s usually not long before someone responds that our teacher pay doesn’t need to meet national averages because we have a low cost-of-living. That certainly helps, but we have to be more precise to understand whether the low cost-of-living makes up for our low salaries.
Fortunately, the Missouri Economic Research and Information Center (MERIC) provides detailed numbers on how each state’s cost of living compares to the national average. MERIC, which is the research division for the Missouri Department of Economic Development, shows that Oklahoma’s ranking for cost-of-living is similar to our ranking for teacher pay. They show that in the most recent economic quarter (1st Quarter 2015), the cost-of-living in Oklahoma was third lowest in the nation, behind only Mississippi and Idaho. Combining estimates for groceries, housing, utilities, transportation, health, and miscellaneous expenses, Oklahoma’s cost-of-living was just 89.1 percent of the national average.
What is less fortunate is that Oklahoma’s low cost-of-living does not make up for our even lower teacher pay. The 2014-15 average salary for classroom teachers in Oklahoma was $44,628, which was just 77.8 percent of the national average teacher salary ($57,379). It costs about 90 cents on the dollar to live here, but we are paying teachers less than 80 cents on the dollar compared to the national average. To bring our teacher pay and cost-of-living into balance, the average Oklahoma teacher would need a raise of about $6,500.
Even that understates the problem, because we must compete for teachers against neighboring states with similar costs of living. Kansas, Missouri, Arkansas, and Texas all have a cost-of-living within 2 or 3 percentage points of Oklahoma. But their starting pay is in many cases thousands of dollars more. As one Arkansas principal, who himself left Oklahoma in 2000, told the Tulsa World, “I hired two just this year from small districts just over the [Oklahoma] border — Westville and Oaks Mission. The pay is definitely better.”
Lawmakers are feeling pressure to do something about Oklahoma’s mounting teacher shortage, but they haven’t shown any willingness to stop cutting taxes, much less to find new revenue to close our state’s growing budget gap. In this context, it’s not surprising to see excuses pop up for why we don’t need to find the money. The excuses don’t stand up to reality.