Cost-of-living doesn’t make up for Oklahoma’s low teacher pay

Photo by BES Photos / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
Photo by BES Photos / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

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.

cost-of-livingWhat 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.


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.

15 thoughts on “Cost-of-living doesn’t make up for Oklahoma’s low teacher pay

  1. Why do we have to fight to be average? Why not excel? Since 1991 we have had 3 pay raises,the last one 8 yrs ago. What other profession does that to it’s employees? Why not try to top the regional average and have educators leaving their states to come here? Oh wait!it’s Oklahoma nevermind.

  2. I’m not sure where the $44,000 a year average salary figure comes from. IT IS COMPLETELY WRONG! My wife is a master’s educated teacher and will not even be making that after 20 years of service. Are you averaging in administration salaries. I almost spilled my coffee when I read that. Even if there is a $6500 increase she will be making well less than 40k. Doubt she will teach much longer.

  3. As an Oklahoma high school teacher, I can tell you that those salary figures are inflated. Morale among Oklahoma teachers is low and we feel unappreciated. No raise (not even a small one) in years, no Christmas bonuses, and teacher retirement is not that great an incentive. I see colleagues who must work extra jobs after they retire in order to live.
    By contrast, my husband works in the coporate world where they are well-compensated, given pay for overtime (and every teacher works overtime for no extra pay) and occasionally treated to a nice catered lunch. That never happens for teachers.
    I have 120 hours of college credits and a professional degree, plus extensive training and AP certification. My husband has an associate degree and makes more than twice what I do.
    Out of the 120 students that I teach every day, there are two who are thinking about a career in education. My students say, “Why would you want to be a teacher? They don’t make any money.”
    Why indeed.

  4. I have been teaching four year, and my salary is around $33,000. When the number $44,000 gets thrown around, I wonder who those teachers are. I don’t teach with a single teacher that makes that amount, even the ones who are eligible to retire (which they can’t because they can’t live off teacher retirement.) I love my job. I’m good at it. I’m not going to leave it to do something else. It would be nice to not struggle to pay the bills. If teachers just didn’t pay state tax on their salaries, that would be a start.

  5. I am an economist at the University of Tulsa. My specialty is studying teacher labor markets. These prior comments are correct about the inflated teacher salaries.

    Using administrative records from the Oklahoma State Department of Education, which is the state’s own reporting of all teacher salaries in the state, I have calculated mean and median salaries. The average salary for a full-time teacher holding a bachelor’s degree or higher in the state is $38,069 in 2015. The median salary is $37,114.

    I have no idea where the $44.000 figure comes from. As other people have reported, that is the average salary for a full-time teacher holding a bachelor’s degree with 20 years of experience. The average teacher in the state holds a BA and has about 12 years of experience.

  6. After teaching g 30 years,retired 5 years, I returned to teaching the past two years. Teachers are not teaching to educate anymore. They are teaching to pass tests. The idea of learning has to be “fun” these days. Whatever happened to teaching students to be we’ll rounded, honest, hard working members of society? We no longer have reasonable sized classes. I started this year with 31 first graders and no aid. Realistically, how am I going to spend time reading and writing with each student each day, to just teach them basic skills. Students lack respect, self discipline and parental guidance and support. Money can’t fix over crowded Classrooms or kids that have no upbringing. Parents need to step in and raise their kids as humans, rather than letting them wander aimlessly with no direction. The work load, testing requirements are far beyond the a erase workday. I was working every weekend to do my extravagant lesson plans to please my principal (which I always thought it was to keep me or a sub on track) grading papers and calling parents to try to get them involve ed as we’ll as attending school parent conferences, carnivals, etc on the average of at least 1 night per week, with no overtime, comptime, etc. Teachers are going to become extinct until control can be regained in the classrooms. Numbers are more reasonable and supplies will be furnished by student or school. Teachers are being asked to work almost 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. No other profession expects that with such little pay!

  7. I honestly dont get all this complaining….First of all, salary is just that, it’s salary.That means you do a job, and you do what it takes to get it done. If you are salaried at an office, trust me- you will frequently take work home. You think office workers get paid a ton of money? Uh…NO!!! I went into teaching because my B.S. degree is worth about $13 an hour. If you want to make a lot of money, go be a nurse, engineer, lawyer, doctor, etc. I teach because I love what I do, I enjoy helping others, I make a difference, I get great benefits I dont pay for, and I get a ton of TIME OFF!!!! When I was an office worker I got $13 a hour, crappy benefits, and 1 week off a year until I had been there 3 years and then I got 2 weeks.It’s not that low. Maybe too many people want too many things that cant afford and doesn’t make them happy anyway in the long run. Go google other salaries in this state for the same 4 year degree you have, I think you will find them comparable.

  8. I left Oklahoma because of the extremely low teacher pay. I sure have met a lot of teachers who have left because of the very low pay! At the time, you needed a spouse who could support the family, or two (or more) jobs to live.

  9. I am a guest teacher my teacher certification has expired,but I work for Oklahoma Public School. My certification was in Special Education. I would like to be a long term teacher ,but I wish my certification was activated so I can just get higher pay.

  10. I am not a teacher, or an education administrator. I am however, a businessman. I know and understand what it means to work long hours and to be underappreciated for the work you do. Educators have a tough job, one I don’t think I would care to tackle.

    My concern is this….when are we going to stop screaming about the problems and start to find the solutions? Personally, I think it’s time we audit the state education department and individual school districts. There are some schools in Oklahoma where principals/superintendents, even in small rural districts are making in excess of 100k per year. If I was a teacher in OK, I think I’d be looking into an administration job instead of a teaching job.

    The state of Oklahoma has thrown money after money at education in this state. We’ve passed the lottery, a portion of the casino money goes to education and a large chunk of the state budget goes to education. The state is bleeding money into the system, but for some reason we aren’t seeing solutions. It’s like going to the doctor and all they want to do is treat the symptoms and not get to the root of the problem.

    I in no manner suggesting that teachers don’t deserve higher pay or better benefits. I think its only fair to expect a modest increase in pay each year and something that would make the pay/benefits more in line with national averages. But let’s everyone work together to find a solution. What are teachers willing to put on the table, everything? If it means we find a workable solution, I think everyone is going to have to step to the plate. Personally, I think the state audit is a great place to start, just to see what money is actually coming in….and where its going. I know I was very frustrated when OKC passed the Maps for Kids tax and all I saw was awnings being put over sidewalks and windows. I know that wasn’t the extent of everything that was done, but I can’t help but wonder if a lot of that money could not have been put to better use….like purchasing required books for the kids in the classrooms, teacher salaries, etc….

  11. For my family we are growing weary of teacher pay debates. My husband worked for the state has two degrees and no pay raise for 10 years! Yes 10 years and he worked 50+hrs a week. Not only that health benefits were capped in 2012 and all costs passed to employees. The only insurance offered is state insurance and they pay for next to nothing. He was bringing home less than he was 10 years ago. He got feed up this year and quit.

    I also have 2 business degrees and make close to the average and generally work 60+ hours a week 50 weeks out of the year with No bonus, nothing for Christmas, not a pat on the back. Its a job and in return for my work I receive a salary.

    When you calculate their salary per school year not including holidays it is a good pay check per month with a long vacation. Teachers salaries has never been a career that would make you wealthy and that is not a secret. What is being taught in the schools is only preparing students for mediocracy and not a true education. We have gone to tutoring my nieces and nephews because what they are learning in the public schools is crap and will NEVER be prepared for college.

    We also get quite irritated as for ourselves and ALL of our friends we do not have children but yet pay for them through taxes with no tax breaks. One easy solution is to do away with exemptions and deductions. Having children is a personal choice and should not be given a “reward” incentive with tax breaks.

    Every thing we do every day whether as an individual or a society is about choices.

  12. I was looking to relocate. Oklahoma was at the top of my list until I read this article. I will go where teachers are appreciated. Thank you.

  13. Teaching is a career choice many in Oklahoma regret choosing . Many feel they’ve wasted their life. There is NO respect for the profession in Oklahoma. It has been hard to justify why teachers don’t go on strike. You should leave your classrooms and let the state deal with the outcome of not having you to facilitate and manage schools. Some teachers are afraid to strike for various reasons. In the end, however, it is a business with the most important element disrespected financially. You must be treated fairly. If the state of Oklahoma won’t respect you and doesn’t respond,then you should say goodbye.Teaching is competitive in other states. Gather your possessions and move on. Sometimes ending a negative relationship, when all options have been exhausted, is the solution. This society will reward Russell Westbrook for playing a simple game with all the honor deserving of a king. His basketball skills were perfected in a school system somewhere with the help of teachers. We have all benefited from the teaching profession in many valuable ways. Teachers are not cowards willing to be bullied by the disrespect of legislators. They are confident they can succeed elsewhere. Many teachers feel a call to the profession and never planned to be rich from teaching. However,they CAN NOT be naive when the disrespect is so blatant!! Teachers, think about your families, stick together and demand respect. Be courageous!

  14. I agree with Scott Anderson. An audit is what Oklahoma needs WHERE IS ALL THE MONIES GOING? I know teachers think they need a raise. They got a raise $5000.00 (2018) but it wasn’t what they wanted. It’s a beginning but it not what they wanted. you cannot expect a magic wand to be waved and money pulled out of thin air. Other programs are going to be hurt and that is not okay. Oklahoman’s whose children have already graduated should not have to pay for other’s children still in school. We paid out dues. For me 4 times. How much do you think came out my pocket I bet much more than came out yours as teachers. Did ya’ll care? Nope. My children had free lunches that is it. No vouchers, no help. I paid for everything else as a single mother. I worked a lot of hours and paid $480.00 a month for daycare. I still had to pay for an outrageous amount of school supplies. I am tired of teachers complaining about their out of pocket as if they are the only ones paying for anything. What happened to realistic fund raisers? What happened to PTA meetings to bay around ideas to raise monies? I will tell you what happened to them PARENTS ARE HAVING TO WORK TWO, THREE, and FOUR jobs to make ends meet because they do not even make $33,000 a year. Who told you, you would get rich being a teacher? If you just want $$$ change jobs. If you want to stay a teacher than ban together and stop screaming raises and start demanding AUDITS. Find out where the monies are going. Then I will march with you.

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