Why Oklahoma teachers need a raise, in two charts

Photo by woodleywonderworks / CC BY 2.0
Photo by woodleywonderworks / CC BY 2.0

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.

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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 “Why Oklahoma teachers need a raise, in two charts

  1. Most Oklahomans wage is $15 or less. You are comparing Oklahoma to higher income areas with higher taxes in every bracket. Those that leave this state, are they any better?

  2. The simple answer, YES. I’ve taught, and am certified, in Texas and Oklahoma. (BTW, Texas certification is lifetime and I’m in Oklahoma by choice only.) My bring home pay after 4 years back is still approximately $400/month less than what I left behind to return “home.” If I was still teaching there, it is likely that the difference, based upon years experience and extra duty pay would be at least $1000 more each month. That’s $12,000+ every year to my home and family. Your argument about average workers pay is a very poor correlation and demonstrates the total disconnect from the truth.

  3. Ha.I would love to see what my hourly rate would amount to if we divided my salary by the number of hours that I actually work every week.

  4. At long last, a study that shows Oklahoma does not have a lower cost-of-living compared to many other states. Initial housing prices are lower however, by the time you factor in home insurance and car insurance any savings or lower cost-of-living you might have assumed has disappeared. Oklahoma uses the argument about lower cost-of-living to pay people less in many jobs in the state. It doesn’t cost any less to buy a pair jeans, buy a car, or pay for your groceries. Gas prices are usually lower because the gas and oil industry have a stranglehold on the state and if they had been paying their fair share of taxes Oklahoma wouldn’t be in the financial mess it’s currently experiencing. I know I only got back into teaching because I could afford to be a teacher after I had raised my children and they were on their own. As a single mom with three children, if I had had to raise my family on what I was paid as a teacher with a Masters degree in Oklahoma, we would’ve required financial assistance.

  5. Gene, I’m very disappointed in your (OK Policy’s) stance on SQ779. WHO WILL SPEAK FOR THE POOR???? If we didn’t tax groceries in this state, it might seem all right to push the benefits to education of a regressive tax such as this, since education is being slashed so severely by the state Legislature. But we DO tax groceries, which means MORE CHILDREN WILL GO HUNGRY. This SQ is immoral. Please reconsider your support for it. It’s not OK that raising the income tax was never considered for this SQ by the ones who sponsored it, because to them, it was “politically unpalatable.” Guess their donors didn’t like the idea of being taxed.

  6. I’ve been teaching 23 years – mostly in NY. I’m only in OK because the man that I married had children here that were still in high school. Even after 4 years of teaching here I’m only making about a third of what I made in NY. I have a Bachelor’s in Biology & a Master’s in Education.

  7. I moved to Tulsa from San Antonio last year and was surprised at the increase in my cost of living and taxes. Texas has no state income tax and the cost of my home and auto insurance has increased. The cost of real estate and food is relatively comparable but TX was not more expensive in that regard. The assumption that TX as a whole is more expensive is a fallacy in my experience as a 30 year resident of TX.

  8. The cost of education is not seen in the near term. A education is a 30 year investment in the future. The fact is you will not see fruition of the investment until the person hits their late 40’s and 50’s as these are the highest income earning years. If you fail to invest now, and ensure students are prepared for tomorrow you will have a future of low income earners who will only exacerbate the education issue. How do you invest? Make education the biggest priority you have. Subsidies for underperforming/ over performing industries is a waste of tax dollars. As a business man if I can make a profit, I will spend the money or get the resources to make profit. I don’t “need” a subsidy to make a good business. Subsidies are the biggest welfare scam we have. The state should not be on tap for your buisness success.

    I ask this because there are numberous states without a state income tax, without big oil money, without casinos and without state lotteries that seem to be managing their money much better. It would be interesting to see an accurate (ie trustworthy) accounting which shows exactly where each dollar is spent and which companies (such as the private prisons, construction etc) are given what. Would also be interesting to see the relationships between the private companies that are benefitting and all government employees in positions of power….

    Just saying….

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