Ray Carter | December 16, 2021
Oklahoma ranks first in region for teacher pay
Oklahoma’s teacher shortage has long been blamed on low teacher pay, but a new report from the Legislative Office of Fiscal Transparency (LOFT) shows that excuse no longer holds water.
“After applying adjustments for both tax burdens and cost of living, Oklahoma’s average teacher salary ranks number one in the immediate region and is the only state within the surrounding region to be ranked higher than the national average,” Brad Ward, program evaluator for LOFT, told legislators serving on the LOFT oversight committee.
For its latest report, LOFT officials compared teacher pay in Oklahoma to all other states, taking into account cost-of-living differences and tax burden to determine the real buying power of Oklahoma teachers. LOFT officials also accounted for the value of teacher benefits in each state, including retirement, state-funded health benefits, and Social Security benefits.
Ward said LOFT found Oklahoma “to have the most complete offering of benefits within the region.”
“Oklahoma’s compensation levels are highly competitive both regionally and nationally,” Ward said. “After adjusting for tax burden and cost-of-living differences, the average Oklahoma teacher salary ranks highest in the immediate seven-state region, fourth-highest in the broader region as defined by the Southern Regional Education Board, and 21st-highest in the nation.”
After adjusting for tax burden and cost-of-living differences, the average Oklahoma teacher salary ranks 21st-highest in the nation.
At a district level, cost-of-living differences mean some Oklahoma teachers in rural areas have significant purchasing power.
“In 2019, the average salary in Okemah was $50,587, but after adjustments the real buying power increased by 17 percent to $59,385,” Ward said.
While Texas is often touted as outbidding Oklahoma for teachers, LOFT found only 20 percent of school districts in Texas pay higher effective salaries than the average pay in Oklahoma.
More broadly, LOFT’s analysis of 2,470 school districts’ average salaries within the surrounding seven-state region showed that only 31 percent offer higher average teacher pay than Oklahoma.
In response, Oklahoma Superintendent of Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister downplayed the importance of teacher pay.
“When we look at cost alone and compare that with other states, even with cost-of-living adjustments, it can be one-dimensional,” Hofmeister said. “Because we are not examining what the teachers are asked to do in this state compared to other states.”
She said Oklahoma has a “more severe teacher shortage than in other states” and suggested Oklahoma teachers are asked to take on tasks teachers elsewhere are not, including driving bus routes and cleaning classrooms.
Typically, schools provide additional compensation for driving a bus. That additional pay would not be counted as teacher compensation in LOFT’s analysis.
LOFT’s analysis indicated factors other than pay play a major role in Oklahoma’s teacher shortage.
Mike Jackson, executive director of LOFT, noted that teacher shortages “are not uniform across teaching areas” with the greatest shortages in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) courses.
LOFT found Oklahoma colleges of education are attracting significantly fewer students than they did a decade ago and are not only producing too few teachers to address STEM needs but also producing too many candidates for other positions.
“LOFT found that Oklahoma’s education pipeline is not producing enough graduates, and those graduating are misaligned to the teacher-labor market,” Jackson said.
LOFT found state colleges of education are failing to produce enough graduates to replace retiring teachers, leading to shortages.
“Oklahoma’s public teacher-preparation programs have not kept pace with the number of teachers retiring each year,” Jackson said. “Over the past 10 years, 29,574 Oklahoma teachers have retired, but Oklahoma’s public institutions have produced enough graduates to fill only 46 percent of those vacancies in the same time period.”
During that period, Jackson said enrollment in teacher-education programs declined by 48 percent. And increasing teacher pay has had no notable impact on reducing teacher attrition in Oklahoma. In Oklahoma, 21 percent of teachers leave after their first year in the profession and 53 percent leave public schools after five years.
“In reviewing annual teacher-attrition data, LOFT found that despite the average Oklahoma teacher salary increasing over time, the annual teacher-attrition rate continues to rise,” Jackson said.
LOFT suggested the Oklahoma State Department of Education (OSDE) could compile teacher labor-market data to inform colleges of education and prospective students on areas of need.
But Hofmeister dismissed that idea.
“OSDE is neither the employer nor are we the producer of the teacher supply, and OSDE is also not the state’s workforce development agency and is leery of mission expansion to include tasks such as analyzing workforce trends and occupational data,” Hofmeister said.
That prompted some pushback from lawmakers.
“For the edification of all of us who believe that a high-quality free public-education system is the silver bullet to economic prosperity for our state, whose responsibility is it for the teacher workforce?” asked Rep. Meloyde Blancett, D-Tulsa.
“That would fall under commerce and workforce development,” Hofmeister responded.
While Oklahoma’s average teacher pay ranks highest in the region, LOFT officials found that the state’s mandatory minimum salary schedule for teachers is flawed and may contribute to workforce attrition over time.
“Oklahoma’s compensation structure is heavily weighted on the front end with an emphasis on raising starting salaries but provides limited income adjustments at the mid- and late-career points,” said Kaitlyn Jasper, program evaluator for LOFT.
While Oklahoma’s salary schedule increases pay for teachers who obtain additional college degrees, the pay increase does not offset the cost of obtaining the degree. As a result, while a first-year teacher with a bachelor’s degree can work towards obtaining a doctorate, there is little real payoff.
“LOFT calculates that for a first-year teacher pursuing this path, it would take 14 years of scheduled salary increases to offset the average cost of these degrees,” Jasper said.
She also noted most states have transitioned away from teacher-salary schedules and Oklahoma is one of only 14 states to still set minimum salary schedules with progression steps. In contrast, Colorado and Texas have been shifting to “market-based approaches,” Jasper said.
While the average teacher pay in most Texas schools is lower than the average pay in Oklahoma, the embrace of performance pay has resulted in some individual Texas districts paying far more than Oklahoma.
“From a district-level perspective, Dallas may be Oklahoma’s greatest regional competition,” Jasper said. “Dallas Public Schools shifted from a traditional salary structure to a salary structure that pays teachers according to their performance in the classroom. Teachers may move up pay levels based on effectiveness. For example, an experienced master teacher can make up to $114,000.”
The LOFT report noted that state law requires the State Board of Education to develop a minimum of five different model incentive pay plans to be distributed to local school boards. But the report said LOFT officials “found no evidence” that OSDE had fulfilled that statute.
Director, Center for Independent Journalism
Ray Carter is the director of OCPA’s Center for Independent Journalism. He has two decades of experience in journalism and communications. He previously served as senior Capitol reporter for The Journal Record, media director for the Oklahoma House of Representatives, and chief editorial writer at The Oklahoman. As a reporter for The Journal Record, Carter received 12 Carl Rogan Awards in four years—including awards for investigative reporting, general news reporting, feature writing, spot news reporting, business reporting, and sports reporting. While at The Oklahoman, he was the recipient of several awards, including first place in the editorial writing category of the Associated Press/Oklahoma News Executives Carl Rogan Memorial News Excellence Competition for an editorial on the history of racism in the Oklahoma legislature.