Budget & Tax, Education
School spending surge brings complaints, not improvement
May 4, 2022
In 2018, the Republican-controlled Oklahoma Legislature approved numerous tax increases, which were quickly signed by then-Gov. Mary Fallin. Supporters said the tax increases would address problems in Oklahoma schools, including a shortage of teachers and subpar academic results.
Four years later, spending and teacher pay are up dramatically, but so far Oklahomans are simply spending more for less. Academic results continue to decline, teacher shortages are growing, and the main thing the 2018 tax increases have generated for Republican lawmakers is mockery from critics who say they don’t care about education, as occurred during a recent House floor debate.
“For all the folks that want to talk about the ‘great pay raises’ and ‘great job’ that we’re doing for our teachers, it’s unfortunate because all the cuts that were made, we’ve never gotten back to that place where we can actually have our teachers valued as they should be valued,” said state Rep. Regina Goodwin, D-Tulsa.
“We still have way subpar pay for our teachers,” said state Rep. Trish Ranson, D-Stillwater.
That drew pushback from House Speaker Pro Tempore Kyle Hilbert.
“In the six years I’ve been in this body, we’ve increased funding to public schools 33 percent,” said Hilbert, R-Bristow. “I mean, how many others have received a 33-percent increase over the last six years? We passed the largest teacher pay raise in state history in 2018, then passed another one when Governor Stitt came to office in 2019.”
Hilbert went on to note that Oklahoma public schools “have more money than they’ve ever had in the history of the state, and it’s not even close.”
State data and reports bolster Hilbert’s claim and undermine the criticisms leveled by Democrats.
There are three main sources of Oklahoma public-school funding: state funding, federal funding and local property taxes. While Hilbert’s comments seemed to regard state funding for schools, financial data shows that total school spending from all sources has surged in recent years and is significantly greater than any time since at least 2005 even after adjusting for inflation.
In 2017, Oklahoma schools spent $6.5 billion. By 2021, total spending had surged to $8.5 billion, an increase of nearly 31 percent in total spending.
And Oklahoma’s teacher pay is now among the highest in the region based on actual purchasing power.
A report issued in December by the Legislative Office of Fiscal Transparency (LOFT) 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.
“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 at the group’s December meeting.
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 only 31 percent offered higher average teacher pay than Oklahoma.
LOFT officials said Oklahoma’s teacher compensation levels are “highly competitive both regionally and nationally.” After adjusting for tax burden and cost-of-living differences, the average Oklahoma teacher salary ranked highest in the immediate seven-state region and 21st highest in the nation.
Yet the increased school funding and best-in-the-region teacher pay has not translated into better academic outcomes or improvement in the teacher workforce.
In all grades and subjects tested by the state, just 24 percent of Oklahoma public-school students were proficient or better in the 2020-2021 school year. That was down from 34 percent in the 2018-2019 school year, which was the first year in which the tax increases and pay raises of the 2018 legislative session took effect.
In 2017, the Oklahoma State School Boards Association reported that 1,430 emergency certified teachers were then employed in public schools. (Emergency certified teachers are individuals who did not obtain college degrees in education and entered the profession from other fields.)
Today, despite pay levels that rank among the best in the region, schools are having to employ even more emergency certified individuals than schools hired prior to the pay raises.
Senate Education Appropriations Subcommittee Chair Dewayne Pemberton, R-Muskogee, recently noted there are now around 3,800 emergency certified teachers in Oklahoma, which is a 165-percent increase since 2017.
Pemberton also noted the number of students seeking teaching degrees in Oklahoma has fallen 33 percent in the last five years. In 2016, there were more than 1,500 students graduating with teaching degrees, compared to less than 1,060 last year
“Every year, we’re losing more teachers with not enough students in the pipeline to fill our classrooms,” Pemberton said.
In response, he has authored legislation to provide state-funded scholarships to high-school students who pursue a teaching degree.
But the decline in college students pursuing education degrees is not a new development. The trends since the 2018 tax increases have only extended the pattern that pre-existed the tax hikes and spending boom in Oklahoma schools.
When LOFT released its teacher-pay report in December, it showed that student enrollment in teacher-education programs at Oklahoma colleges declined 48 percent from the 2010-11 to 2019-2020 school years, and that there had been a 25-percent reduction in the number of students earning degrees in education during that time.
Over that decade, 29,574 Oklahoma teachers retired while Oklahoma’s colleges produced enough education graduates to fill only 46 percent of the resulting vacancies. The LOFT report noted the actual gap is likely even greater because LOFT only reviewed vacancies created by retirement, not those created when a teacher leaves the profession prior to retirement.
LOFT Executive Director Mike Jackson told lawmakers that increasing teacher pay had little impact on that trend.
“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.
Few Meaningful Reforms
Many Oklahoma parents have become concerned about declining academic outcomes and questionable content being taught in many classrooms, but their cries have mostly fallen on deaf ears in the Oklahoma House of Representatives.
Many parents supported legislation introduced in the Senate that would allow state funds to follow a child to any school, public or private, giving parents greater leverage and influence when dealing with their local schools.
But House Speaker Charles McCall, R-Atoka, began the session by declaring he would block such parent-empowerment bills, saying the topic was “just not on the radar or the minds” of House lawmakers.
“Nobody in the House has introduced that bill,” McCall said. “I don’t plan to hear that bill this year.”
The legislation received a vote on the Senate floor, but Senate President Pro Tempore Greg Treat later reported, “The House was actively lobbying as we were on the floor to keep my members from going green.”
Even minor reforms that supporters say could increase parental influence in local schools and improve service have been sidelined in the House.
Research published by the Annenberg Institute at Brown University in January 2020 reviewed data from four states, including Oklahoma, and found the small share of voters participating in spring school-board elections are not representative of families served by school districts, meaning school boards are less likely to respond to the concerns of the families served by the district. Researchers found significant discrepancies in the racial and economic composition of school-board voters compared to district students and found that “the majority of voters in a typical school board election in each of the four states we examine is ‘unlikely’ to have children.”
But a measure moving school-board elections to November, which would dramatically increase public input into the process, was similarly killed in the House when it was not given a hearing on the House floor.
On April 7, House Republicans held a press conference to discuss their caucus priorities for the 2022 legislative session. The priorities highlighted by McCall included marijuana legislation, broadband expansion, addressing inflation, and Tenth Amendment issues involving state pushback against federal overreach.
McCall did not mention education.
In fact, education came up only tangentially in the prepared statements of other House lawmakers at the conference. One legislator highlighted a law passed in 2021 that banned teaching certain concepts associated with Critical Race Theory and a bill passed this year that bans boys from competing in girls’ athletics. Another House legislator said the caucus was committed to “reinvesting in our core services: education, transportation and public safety.”
“Obviously, the House of Representatives is the chamber closest to the people in the state of Oklahoma,” McCall said. “We represent the smallest group of constituencies between the two legislative chambers. This year is just like every other year. We listen to the people in our district and prioritize those issues that we believe that the people of the state of Oklahoma are focused on. Those issues continue to be individual freedoms and liberties.”