Oklahoma State Board of Education members approved a budget request crafted by State Superintendent of Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister that calls for teachers to be given another $5,000 increase on top of the $7,200 combined average increases provided since 2018.
Although Hofmeister claimed the pay rise was necessary to keep Oklahoma regionally competitive, comments from an official with one of the state’s largest school districts suggest the plan may ultimately be a indirect bailout for schools that mishandled federal COVID bailout funds.
At the board meeting, Stacey Wooley, chair of the Tulsa Public Schools Board, urged board members to approve the budget request to help her district maintain existing pay rates.
“Tulsa Public Schools offered teacher and support staff salaries that amounted to increases of 7 to 11 percent over last year,” Wooley said.
How did Tulsa pay for those raises?
“Most of the time we did it with federal money,” Wooley said. “Federal money stands between teachers and support staff losing 7% for doing the toughest job in America, and this federal money is not a permanent fix.”
If state funding in Tulsa isn’t increased enough to offset the loss of one-time federal COVID rescue funds, Wooley said the district will face financial hardship.
National experts have warned that schools could create avoidable financial problems by using one-time federal COVID funds for current expenses.
During a recent webinar, Marguerite Roza, director of the Edunomics Lab at Georgetown University, said many schools across the country could face a financial “bleed” once the one-time federal COVID rescue funds are released. exhausted during the 2024-2025 school year.
Roza said the “most at risk” districts are those that have used federal COVID rescue funds “for recurring financial commitments.”
“We make these commitments. The money, the source of income, is running out,” Roza said. “But the engagements continue.”
Hofmeister plan ignores cost of living differences
Hofmeister announced its teacher compensation plan via a press release issued three days before the state board meeting.
In his statement, Hofmeister said Oklahoma’s average teacher salary had fallen to fourth in a seven-state region, saying Oklahoma currently pays teachers an average annual salary of $54,096, behind New -Mexico ($54,256), Texas ($57,090) and Colorado ($57,706). ).
But these numbers are misleading at best.
A report released last December by the Legislative Office of Fiscal Transparency (LOFT) found that Oklahoma’s average teacher salary ranked first in the region and 21st in the nation in 2019 after taking into account differences in cost of living, benefits and tax burden.
The LOFT report showed Oklahoma trailed neighboring Colorado and Texas when officials only looked at gross wage numbers, but when those numbers were adjusted for actual purchasing power, Oklahoma leapfrogged the two states.
The same dynamic remains in force today.
While the average gross salary for Colorado teachers has increased by just under $3,000 since 2019, according to the figure cited by Hofmeister, data from the LOFT report suggests that the real purchasing power of the average salary of a teacher in Colorado today is equivalent to $51,306. This means that teachers in Colorado are still paid less, on average, than teachers in Oklahoma. The LOFT report showed that Oklahoma’s average teacher salaries provided the national equivalent of $55,161 in actual spending power after accounting for cost-of-living differences in 2019.
Despite ongoing complaints about a teacher shortage, state data shows that there are still 2,831 more public school teachers in Oklahoma than a decade ago, and the student-to- teacher is lower today than it was in 2012.
The same goes for Texas. Although Hofmeister said the average salary for teachers in this state is now $57,090, data from the LOFT report indicates that this figure translates to $54,427 in actual purchasing power, which is lower than the 2019 Oklahoma average teacher salary purchase.
Of the states bordering Oklahoma, only New Mexico appears to pay its teachers more than Oklahoma after accounting for differences in cost of living, benefits, and tax burden. Based on data from the LOFT report and the salary figure cited by Hofmeister, New Mexico has increased its average gross teacher salary by $6,394 since 2019 and state lawmakers recently approved another $10,000 hike. , which will bring his gross salary to $64,256. (The actual purchasing power of New Mexico wages is almost the same as the raw figure, based on LOFT data.)
Carolyn Thompson, deputy chief of staff and chief of government affairs for the Oklahoma State Department of Education (OSDE), acknowledged that the OSDE failed to consider measures of true purchasing power when writing the proposal.
“That doesn’t take into account the cost of living,” Thompson said.
Council members noted that this made salary comparisons erroneous.
“I think we all agree that we want to be competitive with teacher salaries, but obviously it’s – at least in some places – more expensive to live in Colorado,” said Jennifer Monies, member of the state board.
Thompson also indicated that teacher salaries in much of Colorado could be lower than the statewide average cited by Hofmeister, which Thompson said was primarily driven by recent salary increases given to teachers. Denver teachers at high cost.
Past salary increases in Oklahoma have not had the expected impact
When Oklahoma state lawmakers approved a series of major tax increases in 2018 to provide $6,100 in pay increases per teacher, lawmakers predicted the pay increase would spur more people to enter the teaching profession.
And the number of teachers increased over the next two years, but data reviewed at the state board meeting suggests the increase was due more to delayed retirements than to new entrants to the profession.
Following the teacher salary increase of $6,100 in 2018 and the average salary increase of $1,200 in 2019, the number of teachers in Oklahoma schools increased by 1,751 to a total of 43,056 in the 2019-2020 school year.
The number of teachers has since declined to 42,551.
OSDE officials attribute much of the initial increase, as well as a significant part of the subsequent decline in the number of teachers, to the fact that many teachers nearing retirement simply delayed their exit from the profession. for a few years to increase their state pension benefits.
“Their retirement benefit is calculated on their last three years’ salary,” Thompson said. “So (if they stayed in three more years, their retirement benefits would go up because they got a $7,300 pay raise, what is that?). And so it was worth it for many teachers to stay in the classroom, and I think that’s reflected in the numbers. But we’ve hit the three-year mark now, so we’ve started to see a decline. So teachers got the maximum benefits they would get in retirement through pay raises, and then many retire.
She said 1,973 teachers retired at the end of the 2021-2022 school year.
It has long been expected that any increase in the number of teachers will be mainly a byproduct of short-term efforts to increase pension benefits.
At the December 2019 meeting of the State Board of Education, Thompson warned board members that the increase in the number of teachers could be short-lived because it was tied to retirement planning, saying, “We have a cliff coming, of sorts, in three years on the road to increasing teachers’ salaries.
Despite ongoing complaints about a teacher shortage, state data shows there are still 2,831 more public school teachers in Oklahoma than a decade ago, and the student-teacher ratio is lower today than it was in 2012. The number of teachers has increased by 7% over the decade, while the number of students enrolled has only increased by 4.2%.
Student enrollment in Oklahoma’s public schools reached 703,650 in the 2019-20 school year, but plummeted the following year amid COVID. Although enrollment has increased slightly since the 2020-2021 school year, Thompson told board members that enrollment has “not fully recovered” from the pandemic drop.
Overall, there are about 87,000 employees in Oklahoma’s public schools, less than half of whom are teachers.