Who Knew it Was This Easy?

“If there’s a (teacher) shortage in a district, you know how you change that? You increase the salary. If I was a superintendent and I had a teacher shortage, the number one thing I would do is pay above the minimum salary scale. I would pay above what everyone else was paying and, guess what, teachers will flock to (the) district.” ~ Representative Mike Rogers, (R-Broken Arrow)

For the past few years, Oklahoma school superintendents and HR directors have been struggling to find ways to recruit and retain high quality teachers. Apparently, the solution was right there under our nose the whole time.

We just need to pay our teachers more than everyone else. Who knew it was this easy?

moneyIt’s a simple proposal. School superintendents just need to open up the huge vaults of cash they’re hoarding at the district office and give some of it to their teachers.

Except for the fact this money doesn’t exist. It would surprise me if Rep. Rogers didn’t know this already.

This idea is reminiscent of Janet Barresi’s $2K for Teachers plan from 2013.  In case you have forgotten, Janet’s idea called for districts to dip into their annual carryover funds (savings) to pay for one-time salary increases. The plan was widely ridiculed and never taken seriously by people who actually understood school finance.

The truth about school district funding in Oklahoma is it’s a zero sum game. We only have the finances we have. There is no hidden vault full of money. Furthermore, unlike many businesses, a public school district cannot generate additional recurring revenue for its general fund beyond what it receives from existing taxes and State Aid.

Rep. Rogers is right about one thing. If my school district wanted to out-recruit other schools for the best teachers available in the Tulsa area, we could raise our teacher pay thousands above our neighboring school districts. If this actually worked, the other districts would likely respond with pay increases of their own.

Here’s the catch.

In order for us to give our teachers a significant pay raise (without new revenues), we would have to also reduce our number of teachers. Fewer teachers translates to larger class sizes and, based on research, less effective instruction for students.

Let me illustrate with a simple scenario.

School District A has a budget of one million dollars a year for teacher salaries. At an average salary of $40,000 per teacher, the district can employ 50 teachers. To recruit the best teachers from the area, the superintendent decides to raise teacher pay by $10K, which now makes the average salary $50,000/year. As a result, assuming the same million dollar budget, the district must reduce its teaching staff by ten teachers to forty, which would be a 20% cut to its staffing. Consequently, this would cause class sizes to INCREASE by 25%. An elementary teacher who previously had 25 students would now have over 31.  A secondary teacher with 140 students (28/class) would go up to 175 (35/class).

So, yes, many school districts could give teachers a pay raise now. But there would be a trade-off of higher class sizes. This is a balance that district administrators naturally deal with every year.

Since school districts already compete for a relatively small pool of well-qualified teachers – particularly in hard-to-fill subjects and specialties – this strategy would also set off an “arms race” of sorts between neighboring districts. If one district were to start offering thousands more than another district, the other district would also have to increase pay to remain competitive.

Here’s another (very simplified) scenario of how this might transpire.

Two elementary schools in neighboring districts each have five kindergarten teachers making $40,000/year, with a total budget of $200,000. Each teacher is assigned 20 students. If District A lays off one teacher and splits this teacher’s pay and students among the remaining four teachers, teachers could now make $50,000 a year yet have 25 students. To top that, District B decides to cut down to only three kindergarten teachers. Each teacher would now make $66,000/year and have 33 students. If that sounds easy to you, you’ve never been in a classroom with 33 five-year-old children. Anyhow, would District A then cut to only TWO teachers, each making $100K but having 50 students each? Why not just give one teacher $200,000 to teach all 100 kids in an auditorium? Would you want your kids taught in this setting?

One thing we do know from research is that class size does matter, and it matters a LOT! Students taught in classrooms with smaller teacher to student ratios typically outperform students from larger classes, even with quality teachers.

I am not certain of the point Rep. Rogers was trying to make with this comment during his interview with KFAQ’s Pat Campbell on Friday morning. Maybe he misspoke or perhaps I misinterpreted the context of his remarks. It could happen. Yet take a few minutes to listen to his words yourself HERE. The portion with Rep. Roger’s above comment comes at the end of the discussion about teacher minimum salary scales (2:45 to 4:45).

Prior to suggesting that school districts just pay teachers more money, Rep Rogers told Campbell that teacher groups opposed legislation last year to eliminate the minimum pay scales. Why would they do that?  Because, according to Rogers, teachers reported that “they (their school districts) will pay me less than that.” The message Rep. Rogers garnered from teacher input was that teachers couldn’t trust their districts to compensate them what they were worth and would pay below the current pay scale if they could get away with it.

While I would hope this wasn’t true, I don’t have any evidence to disprove Rep. Roger’s version. I suppose it could be true for some smaller districts that are literally hanging on by a string to stay open.

Despite being perplexed by some of Rep. Roger’s comments relative to teacher pay, I do commend him for his leadership on the larger teacher pay raise issue. He has taken the lead in the House this year and that is appreciated by many of us. I also know Rep. Roger’s wife is an educator. Therefore, I will give him the benefit of the doubt and assume his intentions are positive.

To be fair, the larger context for Friday’s interview was Representative Roger’s pending legislation (House Bill 1114) which proposes a $6,000 pay raise for Oklahoma’s teachers.

The bill, which calls for a $1,000 pay raise next year, $2,000 the following year and $3,000 in the third year passed the House on a vote of 92 to 7 and is now headed to the Senate.

Republican legislative leaders have expressed support for a teacher pay raise but up to now have not identified a funding source. A $1,000 raise would cost about $53 million a year.

As I have written before, in light of a $868 million dollar shortfall for the FY-2018 state budget, I am not optimistic our lawmakers will be able to garner the votes to get a pay raise through this year. Senate Pro-Temp Mike Schulz said the same thing in remarks he gave to a Oklahoma City news station ten days ago.

The bottom line is that the teacher shortage will not be solved by school districts suddenly finding more money in their vaults to pay their teachers. The vault is empty. If we could give raises without a significant increase in class sizes, most of us would gladly do it.

In conclusion, it does no good for legislators to continually pass the issue of teacher pay raises back to local school administrators. The ball is in their court now. It’s time to act.

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5 thoughts on “Who Knew it Was This Easy?

  1. I wish it were this simple. However, I’ve worked in a high-poverty area in Tulsa. You could pay $15,000 more a year and you would not entice me to work for that district again. The students were destructive. The parents were hateful. I had a special education teacher scream at me and a counselor make racist remarks to me that left me incredulous. On top of that, I was asked to give the students two opportunities to rate me and their environment with a survey that cost the district millions of dollars to administer. I could tell the “crazy” and stress increased by grade level, so even if I had moved down to the lowest grade, I would have been dealing with much more trauma and insanely large class sizes.

  2. Good article, but bad math: “would be a 20% cut to its staffing. Consequently, this would cause class sizes to also INCREASE by 20%. An elementary teacher who previously had 25 students would now have 30. A secondary teacher with 140 students (28/class) would go up to 168 (33.6/class).”

    For why this is wrong, let’s look at a really simple example: you have 20 students and 2 teachers. Each teacher has 10 students. If you cut staffing 50% (1 teacher), the remaining teacher’s load doesn’t increase 50% (5 students). It increases 100%.

    Similarly, if you have 50 teachers with 40 students each, you could cut to 40 teachers who would have 50 students each. That’s an increase of 25%.

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