Budget & Tax , Education

Ray Carter | March 5, 2021

Tax hikes, pay raises, fail to stem Oklahoma teacher shortage

Ray Carter

In 2018, state lawmakers approved some of the largest tax increases in Oklahoma history, arguing a larger tax burden was required to increase teacher salaries, which politicians claimed were necessary to reduce teacher shortages. Lawmakers approved an average teacher pay raise of $6,100 in 2018 and added another $1,200 in 2019.

But this week members of the Oklahoma Senate effectively admitted that plan has failed.

Lawmakers acknowledged that the teacher shortage in Oklahoma was larger this year than it was prior to the tax increases and pay raises, and that the teacher shortage is expected to grow even larger next year.

“We had over 600 teaching positions we couldn’t fill this last year, and with the possibility of retirements this year after the three-year teacher high on the new teacher pay raises, we could see a lot higher retirements, so we’re going to have trouble filling,” said Sen. Dewayne Pemberton, R-Muskogee.

The teacher-shortage figure of 600 cited by Pemberton exceeds the shortages reported prior to the 2018 tax increases and pay raises.

In 2017, a survey conducted by the Oklahoma State School Boards Association showed there were 536 teaching vacancies that year. That was the last survey taken by the organization prior to the first round of teacher pay increases.

And officials expect the shortfall to grow significantly in the next few years. Because teacher retirement benefits are tied to the last three years of income, one impact of the teacher pay raises was to temporarily slow the pace of retirements while educators racked up credit for newly increased salaries.

But now educators are poised to leave the workforce, having reached their maximum retirement benefit.

“There are 9,000 teachers that are currently eligible for retirement this year,” said Sen. Carri Hicks, D-Oklahoma City.

Increased teacher salaries and greater school funding have also had little impact on educational outcomes. Student achievement on state tests was lower in 2019 than in 2017. No state testing was conducted in 2020 due to the COVID-19 shutdown, but experts believe academic outcomes are even worse today in Oklahoma due in part to some schools’ refusal to return to full-time, in-person learning.

The Oklahoma Education Association, the state affiliate of the National Education Association and the state’s largest teachers’ union, has steadfastly opposed full reopening of schools and also opposes renewal of state testing that would measure students’ academic outcomes over the last two years.

The downward trend comes against a background in which Oklahoma’s public schools were already producing some of the worst academic outcomes in the nation even after the recent infusion of state funding through tax increases and federal COVID-19 bailout funding.

The Quality Counts 2021 report released earlier this year by Education Week showed that only four states had a lower share of 4th grade students reading at grade level than Oklahoma, based on National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) tests that are administered in every state.

In Oklahoma, only 28.5 percent of 4th grade students read at grade level, according to NAEP.

Only five states had a lower share of students scoring proficient in 8th grade math than Oklahoma. NAEP results showed just 25.5 percent of Oklahoma 8th grade students were performing at grade level or better in that subject.

The poor educational quality of Oklahoma’s K-12 education has ripple effects that extend into other areas. The Quality Counts report also showed that only six states have a lower share of 18-to-24-year-olds enrolled in postsecondary education than the 48.7 percent enrolled in Oklahoma.

Lawmakers discussed the teacher-shortage issue this week while debating Senate Bill 267, by Pemberton, which extends existing incentives to lure retired teachers back to the classroom.

Senate Bill 267 passed the Oklahoma Senate on a 36-11 vote. All opponents were Republicans while those in favor consisted of the remaining Republicans and all Democrats. Debate in opposition to the bill centered on concerns that it could negatively impact the teachers’ retirement system.

When SB 267 was discussed and debated on the Senate floor, Pemberton, a former school administrator, warned, “There’s any number of jobs that we have a real issue hiring right now.”

And he said the dramatic increase in teacher pay since 2018 has done little or nothing to attract new people to the teaching profession.

“We are anticipating a large number of positions to be open in the next two or three years, and the colleges of education will tell you we are not seeing a big increase in the number of individuals or young people going into education,” Pemberton said. “We are hurting for people.”

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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