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Mike Brake is a writer who recently authored a centennial history of Putnam City Schools. He served as chief writer for Gov. Frank Keating and for then-Lt. Gov. and Congresswoman Mary Fallin, and has also served as an adjunct instructor at OSU-OKC.

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This article was published in OCPA's Perspective magazine View Issue

District spokesman touts strong commitment in Texas by local school boards to focus on teacher pay.

Motorists in Oklahoma’s two largest cities and two major university towns are seeing an intriguing message from south of the Red River directed at current and future teachers.

Billboards in all four cities proclaim, “Your future is in a Fort Worth classroom: Teacher starting salary $52,000.” They were placed by the Fort Worth Independent School District with one goal in mind—to attract Oklahoma teachers in the wake of the recent statewide teacher walkout. That work stoppage resulted in a $6,100 raise for educators, on average, that would bring teacher pay to about what Fort Worth advertises as its starting salary.

Prior to the raises, average teacher pay in Oklahoma schools was just over $45,000, a figure that would include many veteran and experienced teachers. Fort Worth’s message was clear: You can start from day one here for what it takes an Oklahoma teacher a decade or more to make.

“The passion and concern for children recently demonstrated by thousands of Oklahoma teachers who rallied at the state capital are exactly the attributes Fort Worth ISD wants for our classroom teachers,” a post on the district’s website said.

What allows Texas to pay its teachers thousands more per year than Oklahoma has been able to do for decades?

According to Clint Bond, spokesman for Fort Worth schools, part of it is a strong commitment by local school boards to focus on teacher pay. But there are also differences in how Oklahoma and Texas structure and fund public education. 

The TXSmartschools.org website publishes data about public education there. It notes that an average of 49 percent of school dollars come from local property taxes. This compares to an average of 42 percent for Oklahoma schools, according to the Oklahoma Office of Educational Quality and Accountability (OEQA).

Conversely, Oklahoma schools get 46.3 percent of funds from state appropriations, compared with 41 percent in Texas.

According to the OEQA, based on the latest available data, in the 2015-2016 school year the total new funding for K-12 in Oklahoma was $5,891,937,085, with $2.73 billion coming from the state, $2.48 billion coming from local government, and $683 million coming from the federal government.  

If Oklahoma schools received the same dollar amount in both state and federal funds—and if local areas increased their share of support to K-12 public schools (from 42 percent to 49 percent) to match the share local areas contribute in Texas—it would result in an additional $824 million in support for local schools.

Property taxes tend to be more stable, and Bond noted that property values in the Fort Worth area have been steadily rising along with the state’s burgeoning economy.

Texas schools also devote an average of 61 percent of school dollars to instruction; the figure for Oklahoma schools is 53.7 percent. According to OEQA, based on the latest available data, K-12 expenditures excluding debt service totaled $5.277 billion. If Oklahoma K-12 schools spent the same share of expenditures on instruction as that of Texas K-12 schools, an additional $384.97 million would be dedicated to instruction, which includes expenditures like teacher salaries and classroom supplies. 

If Oklahoma schools received the same dollar amount in both state and federal funds—and if local areas increased their share of support to K-12 public schools (from 42 percent to 49 percent) to match the share local areas contribute in Texas—it would result in an additional $824 million in support for local schools.

Oklahoma legislators have proposed measures that would require that at least 65 percent of school dollars be channeled to the classroom. Those bills have never become law. Given the high administrative overhead in many smaller school districts this side of the Red River, students in many of them are fortunate if even 50 percent of school dollars are spent on learning. A 65 percent mandate would also lead to smaller class sizes.

In addition, Texas schools have wider latitude to set teacher pay scales, unlike Oklahoma where most adhere more closely to a statewide teacher pay schedule that accounts for years of experience and degrees earned. Oklahoma schools continue to operate largely under the traditional “same pay for all” system that awards a set amount to teachers regardless of skill.

Perhaps the most significant difference is in how the two states structure their school systems.

Oklahoma has 516 school districts to serve some 673,602 students. Texas has almost exactly twice as many districts (1,024) educating some 5.3 million children. So, while Texas has approximately 5,175 students per school district, Oklahoma has roughly 1,300 students per school district. Thus, Texas has essentially one-quarter the number of districts per student as Oklahoma. Those economies of scale alone allow more school dollars to flow to classrooms.

Bond noted that Texas law mandates elementary class sizes of no more than 22 students. He also noted that as a longstanding Right-to-Work state, Texas has no tradition of teacher unions or recognized bargaining units. 

“We do have teacher organizations that come to our board to discuss things like salaries,” he said, but there are no potential strikes or walkouts like Oklahoma experienced.

Data on Fort Worth schools show that teacher pay there is significantly better than in Oklahoma from year one forward. Fort Worth teachers with from 11 to 20 years of experience earn $58,504 while those over 20 years make $70,407. Average pay for Fort Worth teachers in 2016-17 was $57,220, about $12,000 more than Oklahoma’s average before the recent raise and still some $6,000 more after the raise.

Bond said the well-known status of Texas as a state with no personal income tax is surely a factor in any person’s decision to relocate there, including teachers. An Oklahoma teacher moving to Fort Worth for the $52,000 starting salary would also get an extra 5 percent raise from the absence of an income tax. (Even former Oklahoma teacher of the year Shawn Sheehan, who now teaches in Texas, has noted that he pays no state income tax.)              

Bond said teacher pay in Texas is not uniform between districts, and that Fort Worth has benefited from a stable and growing property tax base, allowing it to offer the hefty starting salary. In fact, according to data from Fort Worth, average teacher pay in all Texas schools for 2016-17 was closer to Oklahoma’s numbers after the raise, about $51,000 for teachers with 6 to 10 years of experience.

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