Much has been made of teachers fleeing the state for higher salaries in Texas. This was a primary argument by the Oklahoma Education Association (OEA) when explaining their demands for the Legislature to increase minimum teaching salaries in Oklahoma. Data from the National Education Association show the average starting salary for an Oklahoma teacher is $31,919; in Texas, the average is $40,725. However, the minimum salary for beginning teachers in Texas is just $28,080, versus Oklahoma’s minimum starting salary of $31,600.
Why do Texas teachers make so much more than their state’s minimum salary while Oklahoma teachers do not? It happens because teacher salaries are not set by the Legislature, but by individual school districts in both states. The real difference lies in how much control school districts have over their own funds and the priorities of district leaders.
Texas has no income tax but has higher property taxes than in Oklahoma. Texas relies primarily on local property taxes to fund public schools and gives districts more freedom in how to use those dollars, including for teacher pay. In Oklahoma, those dollars are put into silos and can only be used for specific purposes, such as buildings and furniture or bonds to pay for buildings or technology. That means that last year more than $2 billion of local revenue wasn’t allowed to follow the teacher into the classroom in Oklahoma.
Also, comparing average Oklahoma teacher salaries to teacher salaries in specific Texas communities like Denton or Highland Park is misleading. These Texas districts are very wealthy compared to most of Oklahoma and have huge amounts of local property tax revenue to spend on teacher pay. A school district like Pampa, Texas, with a much smaller population and less property tax revenue, gives a much better comparison of teacher compensation. The Pampa Independent School District pays an average salary of $47,881 while Oklahoma teachers make an average of $46,292.
If Oklahoma wants to compete with Texas, including for teachers, we should consider how they fund education and understand why it is possible to pay teachers more south of the Red River.