The Oklahoma State Board of Education (OSBE) has approved a budget request to increase state-funded teachers’ pay for the first time since 2019.
If state lawmakers back the proposal, 52,850 certified public school educators statewide – including teachers in the Tulsa metropolitan area – would receive an across-the-board annual pay increase of $5,000.
In making the case for the raise, state education staff told the Board that it was necessary to stem “worsening teacher shortages.” The proposed 2023-24 Oklahoma state budget, beginning July 1 and which includes these increases, would require a vote of the Oklahoma Legislature when it convenes next year.
Oklahoma teachers last received an official pay raise of $6,100 in 2018 and an additional salary increase averaging $1,220 passed in 2019, according to the State Department of Education. The increase in teacher compensation is estimated to cost approximately $310 million, including within the total state Department of Education budget of $3.57 billion for fiscal year 2024.
Tulsa School Board President Stacey Woolley supported the proposal, saying it was an effort to offset “gross underfunding over the last few years.”
In a meeting held to consider the raise, the OSBE questioned state staff closely about whether the proposed education budget, including the teachers’ pay hike, adequately addressed the current needs for Oklahoma’s 509 public school districts. The seven-member board eventually voted unanimously to advance the budget measure.
“No one at this table is opposed to this,” board member Estela Hernandez of Oklahoma City told the meeting in comments that were generally shared by other members. “Teachers deserve that and more.”
Tulsa Public Schools have faced a significant teacher and support staff shortage for years. The most recent annual Oklahoma State School Board Association survey reflected that teaching vacancies are up 50% statewide since 2020.
But the numbers don’t stop there. The National Center for Education Progress found that the pipeline of college students graduating with education degrees in Oklahoma fell by 80% from 2010 to 2020, a decline greater than any other state.
Consequently, school districts have increasingly relied on “emergency certificates,” filling school teaching vacancies with individuals underqualified for teaching positions. This is partly because “Oklahoma teachers earn 32% less than other professionals with commensurate degrees,” according to the Oklahoma Educational Association.
Improving teachers’ pay
The proposed raise seeks to address Oklahoma’s dismal rankings among states in teachers’ pay and per pupil expenditures.
In a 2021 analysis on teacher pay across the country, the National Education Association (NEA), ranked Oklahoma 34th in average salary ($54,762), 39th on entry-level pay ($38,074), and 45th on per pupil expenditures ($10,553) among the 50 states.
The focus on salaries comes at time nationwide where teachers now make on average $2,150 less than they did 10 years ago, the NEA reports.
Despite the attempt to offset these disparities, recent high rates of inflation will significantly mitigate the proposed increase. For example, using consumer price index changes over the last four years, a teacher earning the current state average of $54,096 lost over $4,800 in purchasing power since the last pay increase. And the proposed state budget included no salary increases for the 33,511 school district support staff, who last received a pay boost from the state in 2018.
The teacher pay increase faces an uncertain outcome in the Republican-dominated Oklahoma Senate and House. Those bodies have not prioritized school funding in recent years. The state handed out the last pay hikes in 2018-2019 under pressure, because of the statewide teachers’ strike.
Since then, Oklahoma lawmakers have made no financial moves to raise teachers’ salaries. In the last couple of years, public schools have increasingly relied upon federal funds in the form of the Biden Administration-led American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 to help Americans during the coronavirus pandemic.
While Oklahoma has received a total of $3.19 billion in ARPA funding – which passed Congress despite Oklahoma’s entire seven-member Republican delegation voting against it, the financial assistance is only temporary.
Carolyn Thompson, the OED’s deputy chief of staff, told the state board that the teacher shortage was due to two primary factors. The first was the departure of teachers caused by the stress of the COVID-19 pandemic. The second cause was the large number of teachers retiring as a consequence of the way retirement benefits are calculated from the 2018-2019 bump in pay. She claimed that the $5,000 pay hike would catapult Oklahoma from fourth place to first in the seven-state region.
But that goal could be accomplished only if other states in the region didn’t increase teacher salaries.
In New Mexico, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has already signed into law a teachers’ pay increase of $10,000 for next year. That hike would keep New Mexico well ahead of Oklahoma.
“We’ve significantly raised teacher pay in recent years, but so did our neighboring states with whom we are competing,” State Superintendent of Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister said in a news release. “This investment is vital to our ability to build a sustainable teacher workforce, necessary for providing the high-quality education Oklahoma students need and deserve.”
It is uncertain that the $5,000 in teacher pay increases would move Oklahoma from its low rankings nationally. A nationwide teacher shortage teacher crisis is likely to cause other states to react as well.
In a February media release, NEA President Becky Pringle characterized the nationwide teacher shortage as a “five-alarm fire.”
While the teacher shortage has been decades in the making, the pandemic has worsened the situation, she noted. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics recently revealed that there were 567,000 fewer public educators nationwide than before the pandemic. Oklahoma school district officials, including Tulsa Superintendent Deborah Gist, have also pointed the finger at teaching restrictions imposed by the controversial Oklahoma House Bill 1775 that increase stress on teachers and district administrators. The legislation restricts Oklahoma public school educators from teaching on the topics of ethnicity and gender issues that “one race or sex is inherently superior to another race or sex.”
A federal lawsuit, led by the American Civil Liberties Union of Oklahoma and a diverse group of students and educators, is challenging H.B. 1775 is unconstitutional under the First and 14th Amendments
In addition, the state board imposed harsh sanctions on the Tulsa and Mustang public school districts – each was downgraded to accredited with warning on July 28 – for unwittingly violating racial diversity training prohibitions in the new law.
The Oklahoma Education Association – which has nearly 35,000 members – said the penalties against Tulsa and Mustang sends a depressing signal to teachers who are working in “an already stressed system. This creates significant concerns among teachers and staff, who may now be afraid to teach portions of the State Standards in fear of retaliation.”
Seen in its full context, the proposed teachers’ pay increase is unlikely to stem the hemorrhaging of teachers’ departures from public schools.
Oklahoma educators say when the teachers’ pay increases is removed from the proposed state budget, the net increase in state funding for the remaining portion of the budget is only $86 more in per pupil expenditure for the next school year.
Setting aside the teacher-only proposed pay increases, the budget being advanced to the legislature next year amounts to less than a 2% increase over last year’s total appropriation. This is at a time when inflation rages almost unabated at near 6% from a year earlier.
“We’ve got to be competitive and attract and keep great teachers,” said Hofmeister, who is running against Gov. Kevin Stitt on Nov. 8.