Budget & Tax , Education

Ray Carter | December 16, 2022

Oklahoma offers lavish teacher benefits, study shows

Ray Carter

Oklahoma’s public-school teachers face no out-of-pocket expense for their health insurance premiums because state government foots the entire tab. That’s far more generous than what most other states offer—even though the taxpayer cost of providing that perk is escalating rapidly in Oklahoma, according to a new state report.

The report, issued by the Oklahoma Legislative Office of Fiscal Transparency (LOFT), reviewed the performance and benefits of the state-administered health insurance plan. Among other things, the report noted how state lawmakers’ 2004 decision to pay 100 percent of the cost of teachers’ insurance premiums is much more generous than what teachers in most other states receive.

“While it is common for state government to fund a significant portion of health insurance benefits for state employees, it is less common for states to directly fund this benefit for school personnel, as school districts—not the state—are the employer,” the report stated. “LOFT’s regional comparison found that Oklahoma is the only state in the seven-state region to fund 100 percent of school personnel health insurance benefits.”

In neighboring Kansas, Missouri, and Colorado, LOFT officials found the state pays none of the cost of teachers’ health insurance premiums. In Texas, the state covers 12 percent of cost, while in Arkansas the state pays for 24 percent and New Mexico pays 65 percent.

Even when accounting for local districts’ payment for health insurance premiums, teachers in other states often face far greater out-of-pocket expenses than their Oklahoma counterparts.

The insurance coverage provided to teachers by Oklahoma state government represents a de facto pay increase almost every year.

According to a 2021 report from the Texas Teacher Retirement System (TRS), LOFT noted that Texas educators pay 43 percent of the total premium for health insurance benefits. LOFT found that the Oklahoma Legislature’s contribution rate in 2021 was $4,691 greater (or 174 percent higher) than Texas’ total combined contribution rate from both the Texas Legislature and local school districts

In the 2021 state budget year, the Oklahoma Legislature appropriated approximately $809 million toward the cost of health insurance benefits for state employees and education personnel. Approximately 174,000 employees and their dependents were covered by a HealthChoice with 57 percent coming from the state’s education sector.

Of the $809 million in state payments for health insurance benefits during the 2021 state budget year, approximately $561 million was designated for employees of local school districts and CareerTech.

In 2021, the state’s contribution to health benefits for state, local school district, and CareerTech employees accounted for 10 percent of all state-appropriated dollars, and the state’s total contributions to health insurance coverage has increased by 25 percent since 2014.

The LOFT report noted the “largest area of growth has been in coverage for education employees.” Since 2010 the Legislature’s contributions to school district employees’ health benefits has increased by 91 percent.

The insurance coverage provided to teachers by Oklahoma state government represents a de facto pay increase almost every year, based on state data that shows teachers would otherwise have paid an ever-greater amount out of pocket if they lived in other states where the state and/or local districts cover only a portion of insurance premium costs. In 2010, Oklahoma’s state-funded flexible benefit allowance for local school district employees was $409 per month, or $4,908 per year. By 2022, it had surged to $616 per month, or $7,392 per year.

“Nationally, teachers directly contributed 15 percent for single health insurance and 34 percent directly for family coverage in 2022,” the LOFT report stated.

Lawmakers suggested teacher insurance benefits are an often-overlooked part of total compensation when trying to attract educators to the state.

State Rep. Meloyde Blancett, D-Tulsa, noted that “the way we fund benefits and offer benefits is a function of compensation,” and said “the fact that we do offer this greater degree of benefit payment for the family means that’s something we can leverage in terms of retention and attraction” for prospective teachers.

Senate Majority Floor Leader Greg McCortney, R-Ada, expressed a similar view.

“We’re putting a lot more money into teacher health care than the average state, or the states that we always get compared to,” McCortney said.

Ray Carter Director, Center for Independent Journalism

Ray Carter

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.

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