If there’s one thing Oklahoma citizens and political leaders of both major parties agree on, it’s that our state’s teachers need a raise. Republican leaders in the House and the Senate both say a teacher raise is at the top of their priorities in the coming session, and Democrats in both chambers have filed bills to increase teacher salaries as well. Even the most vocal opponents of the SQ 779 teacher raise plan insisted that they believe teachers need a raise but disagreed with how SQ 779 would pay for it.
In her State of the State address to kick off this year’s legislative session, Governor Fallin laid out some parameters for a teacher raise. She said, “Let’s act on a permanent pay raise for our public school teachers. It is what the public and families want. The pay raise may need to be phased in and it may be targeted, but it must be done.”
Ideally, we could pay all teachers much higher salaries, but with Oklahoma staring at another large budget hole and legislators already expressing skepticism about Governor Fallin’s most ambitious revenue ideas, it seems unlikely that we can find the money for a significant across-the-board teacher raise this year. So if we need to aim for a targeted raise, how should it be targeted?
One idea comes from Dr. Matthew Hendricks, who produced a study in 2015 into how teacher pay is contributing to teacher attrition in Oklahoma. He found Oklahoma teachers were leaving at rates much higher than states like Texas, where pay is better. He also found that Oklahoma’s teacher attrition was highest in urban and suburban schools (likely because teachers have more alternative job prospects in those areas). Most disturbingly, he found that teacher attrition was highest in schools with a large percentage of students living in or near poverty. As a result, Hendricks wrote, “low-income students in Oklahoma are taught by less-experienced teachers on average who have had less time to develop important bonds with the students in their schools.” This high teacher turnover wreaks havoc on schools where the kids need stability most.
To fix this problem, Oklahoma could provide a bonus to teachers in schools with a majority or supermajority of students living in or near poverty, much like how we provide a bonus to Board Certified teachers. To fully equalize teacher turnover between high-income and low-income schools, Hendricks estimates that teacher salaries in low-income schools need to be 55 percent to 65 percent higher — about $20,000 more. And we’re not talking about a small number of schools. About 35 percent of all Oklahoma school districts, employing 13,250 FTE teachers, have 65 percent or more of their students living at or below 130 percent of the poverty line and eligible for free lunches. A $20,000 raise for these teachers would cost about $265 million, not including benefits.
An investment of that size is not likely to be politically feasible, but even a smaller raise could make a difference. It could also be paired with other targeted raises, such as for high demand subjects and grades. For example, the Oklahoma Teacher Shortage Task Force reported that emergency certifications — where schools had to put a teacher in a classroom without credentials because no fully qualified applicant could not be found — were highest for 9th through 11th grades and for science and math and elementary education specialists. One proposal (HB 1415) would provide a targeted raise for teachers with class sizes above the state maximum.
Another strategy identified by Hendricks for how to get the most effect out of a teacher raise would be to focus on the early years of a teacher’s career, when they’re at most risk of leaving the classroom. Hendricks wrote, “if one designs a salary schedule to maximize teacher productivity, then the optimal shape of the salary schedule should look more like that employed in the private sector. In the private sector, salaries tend to increase rapidly early in a worker’s career and level off in later years.” That contrasts with Oklahoma’s current salary schedule for teachers, which looks like this:
Teachers start at between $31,975 and $34,375 per year, depending on their degree. They receive $375 per year raises their first five years, $400 raises in years six through ten, $850 to $2,125 raises in year 11, depending on their degree, and $425 annual raises after that. Board certified teachers get another $1,000. These are the statutory minimums, and some districts do pay more. However, average salaries at most districts across the state stay within a relatively narrow range. Based on the average teacher salaries by district shared by Oklahoma Watch, over 81 percent pay their teachers between $35,001 and 40,000 on average. The few districts paying less than $30,000 are primarily charter schools, which are exempt from minimum salary requirements.
So for all of the different challenges faced by school districts in different parts of the state, the average teacher salaries remain within a narrow range. Teacher raises are clearly on the agenda for Oklahoma lawmakers. All teachers deserve a raise, and the first challenge is still figuring out how to pay for it. But as that debate continues, lawmakers and advocates could give more thought into what form the raises should take to have the greatest benefit for struggling students and schools.