For the past five years, Oklahoma has lingered at 49th in the nation in teacher pay, just above Mississippi and South Dakota.

That is likely to change very soon. According to a recent story from the Associated Press (AP), Oklahoma teacher pay may soon be moving to 51st in the nation. The rankings include the District of Columbia.

It might be more descriptive to just say Oklahoma will soon be DEAD LAST!

This is because South Dakota and Mississippi state legislatures have both approved measures to specifically increase teacher wages. In South Dakota, a half-cent sales tax allowed for an $8,500 boost in teacher pay. This will increase the average teacher pay to $48,500.

Since 2014, Mississippi has phased in a $2,500 raise followed by merit raises. I am not a fan of the approach Mississippi is using to award merit pay ($100 per student in “A” schools; $75 for “B” schools, etc.), but at least they are doing something to address poor teacher pay in their state.

What both of these states finally came to realize is that their schools and students were suffering as a result of their state’s relatively low salaries.

Trained educators in both states were relocating to other regions, or simply commuting over their borders to neighboring states to make as much as $10,000 more per year.

Teachers struggling to make ends meet were taking on second or even third jobs, taking away from the time and energy they were able to invest in the classroom.

Teacher morale was rapidly declining after years of undelivered promises and a long-standing, pervasive lack of respect.

Finally, both states were dealing with serious teacher shortages as a result of the low pay.

Sound familiar?

It hasn’t always been this bad for teachers in Oklahoma.

According to the National Education Association, a decade ago Oklahoma ranked 42nd in teacher pay with an average $43,551, which includes health, life and retirement benefits.

Then, the recession hit, and the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities says Oklahoma has led the nation in cuts to public education per pupil spending since 2008. The nonpartisan group estimates 27 percent of state per pupil funding, adjusted for inflation, has been cut.

Oklahoma legislators seem to be listening. As of two weeks ago, seven different bills aimed at getting teachers more money were still pending in Oklahoma’s state legislature.

The rub is that nobody has come up with a method to pay for the raises, or at least one that could get passed out of both the House and Senate and get signed by the Governor, especially during the current fiscal crisis.

I hate to be the bearer of bad news but hope for a pay raise this session is fading fast. I’m afraid Oklahoma is about to win the race to the bottom.

Don’t take my word for it. Senate Pro Tempore Mike Schulz is making the same prediction.

In this March 2nd news story for OKC’s Channel 9, the Senator made these comments:

“I don’t think there’s any one silver magic bullet out there that fills our budget gap as well as provides a pay raise for teachers this year … I think it’s a high hurdle to get over to think that we’re going to come out of this session with dollars going into their paycheck.”

Senator Schulz said he expects the legislature to lay the foundation for raises but admits a foundation for a raise is not a raise.

While I am not fond of the message, I do appreciate the Senator’s candor. False hope is often worse than no hope.

The bottom line is pay for Oklahoma teachers is likely about to hit rock bottom, the lowest in the nation – number 51. We will become the state that other states use when they talk about their low pay: “Well, at least we’re higher than Oklahoma.”

You know those survival kits that well-meaning family and friends put together for folks turning the Big Five – Oh (50)? A typical kit might include denture cleanser, eyeglass holders, Maalox, pill organizers and other assorted “old-people” stuff. I received one myself a few years ago.

In that spirit, I would like to propose an education survival kit to help Oklahoma schools and teachers as we hit this new “milestone.”

First, we’ll need a sign.


Then, a few fun things to put in every teacher’s beginning-of-the-year gift bag:

  • String – to tie things together when everything starts falling apart.
  • Lollypop – for when life sucks.
  • Rubber band – to help you stay flexible, don’t snap just bend.
  • Toothpick – to pick out the good things in yourself, your colleagues, and your students.
  • Candle – to replace the one you’re burning at both ends.
  • Fake money – since the real thing wasn’t available.
  • Batteries – to keep yourself energized.
  • Animal Crackers – to use when your room with five additional students feels like a zoo.
  • Gum – to help you stick with it when you feel like giving up.
  • Adult beverages – well, we know what these are for.

Finally, a few pragmatic items that many schools will need to survive, particularly if funding for common education is also cut for FY2018:

  • Emergency certification applications – to use when no qualified certified teachers are available to fill critically needed positions.
  • Larger classrooms/smaller desks – to allow us to stuff 35-40 students in classes.
  • Longer work days – for teachers and administrators to absorb increased responsibilities due to reduced school staffing.
  • More classroom lectures – with larger classes, the ability for teachers to plan active learning or group activities is severely handicapped. Hence, more “stand and deliver” teaching.
  • More professional development – to train larger numbers of younger, less experienced teachers to handle higher expectations.
  • Parent and community volunteers – to help as reading partners, library aides, substitutes, coaches, and office support after these positions are cut.
  • More advocates for public education – to convince our legislators that we really do have a problem and that quality schools in Oklahoma cannot be sustained with current funding levels. Because being 51st in the nation for teacher pay is not OK!

If we can’t get a pay raise for Oklahoma teachers passed this year, maybe our legislature can at least spring for some cool t-shirts. We can wear them when we come to rally next year.

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