One of the most hotly debated State Questions that Oklahomans will decide this year is SQ 779. The measure would increase the sales tax to improve education funding — with most of the new funding dedicated to teacher raises. While opponents of the measure have criticized using a sales tax increase as the funding source, there is widespread, bipartisan agreement that Oklahoma teachers need a raise.
SQ 779 would require districts to provide a $5,000 raise for all Oklahoma teachers. It would also provide some additional funds that schools could use for performance pay or pay increases for the most highly demanded teacher positions. That $5,000 wouldn’t bring Oklahoma up to anywhere near the best states for teacher pay, but it would counteract the trend of falling pay since 2009.
According to data from the National Education Association, Oklahoma’s average classroom teacher salary went from $47,691 in 2009-2010 (before inflation) to $44,921 in 2015-2016. These are gross teacher salaries before deductions for Social Security, retirement, and health insurance, so the take home pay for teachers is even less.
Out of all 50 states, Oklahoma’s 2015-2016 average classroom teacher salary was ranked 48th, ahead of only South Dakota and Mississippi. And as the chart below shows, average salaries have decreased by more than $7,500 after accounting for inflation.
The decline in average salaries doesn’t necessarily reflect individual teachers receiving pay cuts. A more likely scenario is that more experienced teachers and teachers with more advanced degrees are leaving the classroom and being replaced by less experienced teachers with little to no training in teaching. These new teachers can be employed at lower pay. However, a large amount of research has found that teacher experience matters a lot for student achievement.
Cost of living doesn’t make up the difference
One common argument in Oklahoma’s debates over teacher pay is that we have a lower cost of living here, so teachers can afford the same quality of life with lower pay. It’s true that Oklahoma’s cost of living is relatively low, but we can also quantify how much that alleviates lower salaries.
The most recent data from the Missouri Economic Research and Information Center shows that Oklahoma’s cost of living is 87.9 percent of the national average, accounting for the cost of groceries, housing, utilities, transportation, health care, and other expenses. Yet Oklahoma’s average classroom teacher pay in 2015-2016 ($44,921) was just 77.4 percent of the national average classroom teacher salary ($58,064). If Oklahoma teachers were paid 87.9 percent of the national average teacher salary, they would be making about $51,038. That means Oklahoma teachers would need a raise of about $6,100 for their average salaries to reach the national average adjusted for cost of living.
It’s become undeniable across the political spectrum that Oklahoma students are getting a worse education because we aren’t paying teachers a competitive salary. The raises provided under SQ 779 won’t push Oklahoma near the top states for teacher pay, but they could reverse the decline since 2009, and they would bring salaries closer to what they should be to reflect the cost of living and raising a family here.