Most of the discussion on teacher pay in Oklahoma compared to other states has focused on the total compensation of teachers, since that’s what is typically used when making comparisons across states. As we recently discussed in our comparison of Oklahoma and West Virginia education funding, Oklahoma’s average 2016 teacher compensation was $45,276, ranking us lower than all but two other states.
However, in some ways that number actually overstates how Oklahoma’s teachers are faring by combining the take-home salary of teachers with the fringe benefits that pay for teachers’ health insurance. If teachers get health insurance through other means, they can use this flexible benefit allowance as taxable income, but most need it to cover their health insurance. Some districts add to those benefits by paying for things like dental, vision, life, and long-term disability insurance. These fringe benefits are important, but teachers can’t use them to cover basic expenses like food, rent, transportation, and other household needs.
With the detailed salary data provided by the state Department of Education, we can dig deeper into teachers’ salaries. In the 2017-2018 school year, this data shows that the average base salary for Oklahoma teachers was $38,354. Another $7,325 went to fringe benefits, bringing total compensation to $45,678. The data shows that over the past decade, not only has teacher pay barely increased, but almost every new dollar has gone to fringe benefits rather than base salary.
The rising cost of health insurance is a national trend that’s not limited to Oklahoma. Although there are some promising solutions, most of those are beyond the scope of what school districts are able to control. But the combination of stagnant funding from the state and rising insurance costs have meant that average base salaries for Oklahoma teachers have stagnated for more than a decade. Even in years when per capita personal income in Oklahoma was showing strong growth, teacher salaries did not budge. And when we account for inflation, we find that real take-home pay for Oklahoma public school teachers has shrunk in 10 out of the past 11 years.
Since 2006, the real take home pay for teachers has dropped by $5,859, or 11.4 percent. In this context, the flood of teachers leaving Oklahoma classrooms for other states or other professions should be no mystery. Nor should it be a surprise that teachers are now planning a mass walkout in protest.
The good news is that Oklahoma has many good options to fix this problem for the teachers, for the support staff and state employees who have experienced similar losses, and for all Oklahomans who have seen their schools deteriorate and their services disappear amid our state’s chronic budget shortfalls.
The nature of the problem is clear. The question left is whether our lawmakers will adopt the solutions to fix it.