Oklahoma’s striking teachers are intoxicated by their own demands

Oklahoma’s teachers have just completed the first week of a statewide “walkout,” with no resolution in sight. (It’s a “walkout,” not a “strike,” as public-employee strikes are illegal in Oklahoma.)

Ironically, the state’s teachers had won much of what they wanted before the walkout even began. On Friday, March 23, the Oklahoma Education Association (OEA), the state’s largest teachers union, issued an ambitious list of demands: a $10,000 pay raise for teachers; $5,000 raise for school-support personnel; $200 million over three years in additional local-school funding; a 5 percent cost-of-living increase for retirees; and $500 million over three years to “fully staff state agencies” and raise state employee pay by $7,500 a year. In OEA’s estimation, this total package would cost more than $1.4 billion over three years.

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In response, on Thursday, March 29 the Oklahoma legislature enacted a new teacher-pay scale that boosted average teacher pay by $6,100 — or 16 percent. This represented a remarkable win for teachers: In 2016, Oklahoma’s average teacher salary of $45,276 ranked 49th nationally, according to the National Education Association (NEA). The raise was funded via new taxes on gas, tobacco, and oil production, along with a new limit on income-tax deductions.

Yet, teachers were not placated — and on Monday, April 2, they started the walkout. The next day, Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin signed a $2.9 billion appropriations bill for education funding in fiscal year 2019 — a 19.7 percent boost in spending over the current fiscal year, which ends June 30. The legislation includes $353.5 million for teacher pay (funding the $6,100 average raise); $52 million for support personnel pay; $50 million for textbooks and general state aid; and $24.7 million for health-care benefits. Fallin signed additional legislation providing a $1,250 annual pay bump for school-support personnel and tiered raises for state employees ranging from $750 to $2,000.

Still, the walkout continues, with teachers seeking additional concessions. Their stance has garnered widespread support and glowing media coverage. And while the sympathy is easy to understand, it should be noted that, after the 16 percent boost, average teacher pay in Oklahoma will next year exceed the state’s median household income of $50,943.

Indeed, the new average teacher salary of $51,376 will vault Oklahoma into the very middle (29th) of NEA’s teacher-salary rankings, with Texas the only bordering state with higher average salary — by about one percent. Add the fact that Oklahoma boasts the third lowest cost of living in the U.S, and it’s fair to say that Oklahoma’s teachers will now be reasonably well-compensated relative to their peers across the country.  

It’s also worth noting that base salary doesn’t take into account health-care, retirement, and other benefits, which amount to about 24 percent of Oklahoma teachers’ total compensation, according to federal data. As former Obama administration appointee Chad Aldeman has documented, teachers have the highest retirement costs of almost any public-sector profession — and that public sector employees generally enjoy health and retirement benefits that dwarf those of their private sector counterparts.

Of course, Oklahoma does spend less per-pupil than other states: The NEA reports per-pupil spending in Oklahoma was $9,036 for the 2016-17 school year, down from $9,056 in 2008-9 (all in inflation-adjusted dollars). This is less than other states spend, though it still amounts to more than $225,000 a year for a class of 25 children. While more dollars can only help, that amount would seem to go farther than it has, if spent wisely and well.

After all, between 1992 and 2014, inflation-adjusted per-student spending in Oklahoma increased by 26 percent, even as average teacher salaries rose only 4 percent. If teacher pay had merely kept up with per-pupil spending, average teacher salaries would be more than $56,000 today — even before the bump contained in the new legislation. Meanwhile, as public-school student enrollment in Oklahoma increased by 17 percent from 1992 to 2015, teacher-workforce growth lagged behind — but non-teaching staff increased by 23 percent.  

The same district leaders who have added outsized numbers of non-teaching staff and failed to rein in benefit costs are now finding it convenient to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with their teachers in pursuit of additional funds. Rather than seeking to force teachers back to work, superintendents have closed their schools and cheered them on — protecting teachers from the need to officially break the law or even sacrifice personal days. At least 50 school districts have been closed across the state, including those in Tulsa and Oklahoma City, the state’s two largest districts. The consequences of this for children and working parents are severe, even if they’ve drawn little attention amidst a narrative focused on the heartwarming story of middle-class earners winning an overdue raise.

“There are broader implications going forward for any more days canceled,” said Oklahoma City Public Schools spokeswoman Beth Harrison, “because it starts to impact instructional time, which starts to impact families.” After five days, the walkout has consumed most of the six extra days built into the calendar to account for emergencies like weather-related closings, with many school systems now looking at adding additional minutes to the school day or pushing back the last day of the year to make up for lost time.

Meanwhile, as veteran teacher-union reporter Mike Antonnuci has observed, as was the case in West Virginia, “no one is losing pay for going on strike.” Following the wholesale triumph of West Virginia’s teachers in their recent strike, which was likewise accompanied by widespread support and adoring press, superintendents see which way the wind is blowing. Doubtless, school leaders in Kentucky, Arizona, and other states at-risk for teacher strikes are also taking notice.

There’s an important conversation to be had about teacher pay, benefit costs, and how to attract and honor terrific teachers — and pay fairly professionals who put in a solid day’s work. And, like many, we think the gains that Oklahoma’s teachers have now won are reasonable and appropriate.

But it appears that, even more than in the case of West Virginia — where teachers returned to work with a comparatively Spartan 5 percent pay bump — Oklahoma’s walkout is quickly becoming detached from efforts to ensure that dollars are spent responsibly. When teachers who have already claimed a massive win are shuttering schools over demands for retiree cost-of-living-adjustments and the need to “staff-up” other state agencies, it seems farfetched to say that student concerns are still front and center.

Rather, teachers and taxpayers alike will be well-served if the push for more school spending is approached with an eye toward managerial discipline and what Oklahoma’s families can reasonably bear, so that this intoxicating, feel-good moment doesn’t end with a nasty hangover.

Frederick M. Hess is director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. Grant Addison is education program manager at AEI.