Talk is increasing of a teacher walkout in the state of Oklahoma with petition drives pushing the idea and teacher and parent groups mobilizing for a work stoppage. While the desire to increase compensation for teachers is understandable, is this really the correct response?
If you spend just a few minutes on social media, you will see numbers thrown around proclaiming Oklahoma ranks at or near the bottom of teacher pay, but as with most things, you need to look deeper than just at the numbers on the surface.
Research by the 1889 Institute — its website describes it as a nonprofit education and research organization that “analyzes and develops state public policies for Oklahoma based on principles of limited and responsible government, free enterprise and a robust society” — may change your mind about the dire need for pay increases and where the state ranks.
In a February “policy suggestion” paper, the group notes a $3,000 pay raise would bump Oklahoma teacher pay “in average cost-of-living-adjusted teacher pay by state” from 30th to 20th, and a $5,000 raise would move Oklahoma up to 15th.
But how could this be? Isn’t Oklahoma at the bottom of teacher pay? Well, not quite, as revealed in the 1889 Institute’s Aug. 2016 policy analysis paper.
The report correctly notes that at the time of its study, Oklahoma ranked 48th in the nation in average teacher pay in “raw numbers.” But when taking cost of living into account, it’s not nearly so dire, considering only Mississippi has a lower cost of living.
Using a cost of living index calculated by the Missouri Economic and Research Center, it found Oklahoma was 30th in teacher pay, with an average salary adjusted for cost of living of $51,105, ahead of neighboring states New Mexico and Colorado. The unadjusted average salary for Oklahoma at the time of the study was $31,606. The cost of living adjusted wage placed Oklahoma above the national median.
That doesn’t mean we should be satisfied with current levels of teacher pay and any reasonable recourse to continue to pay Oklahoma teachers a competitive rate based on cost of living should be explored. But can Oklahomans afford to pay their teachers more?
The Institute calculates a $1,000 increase in average teach pay will cost taxpayers $48 million and a $5,000 raise $241 million.
It is understandable for teachers to feel frustrated over a lack of pay raises while the workload has not eased up, but they are not alone. Many other professions have experienced something very similar, working without pay increases, increased workloads, having to purchase their own supplies while equal or greater results are expected. Many others also, like teachers, have to work side gigs to make ends meet.
However, the calls for a walkout — it has to be called a walkout because teacher strikes in Oklahoma are illegal — appear shortsighted and designed more to incite than resolve.
One petition started at change.org supporting a walkout demands teachers receive a $10,000 pay raise and has garnered over 27,000 signatures. No word on where that money would come from. Of course, it would come out of the pocket of Oklahoma taxpayers, many of whom are working without pay hikes who would then see their paychecks decrease further.
A Facebook group, The Time Is Now, has over 42,000 members and is pushing hard the idea of a walkout.
It appears many fondly recall the 1990 four-day walkout in Oklahoma that did eventually result in teacher pay raises and are hoping a little sentimental blackmail, in the form of a walkout, would have the same desired effect. One teacher was even quoted in a news report in the Tulsa World as saying the current targeted walkout date is April 2 (the beginning of the state testing period) because that’s “when it might hurt the most.” Is that the objective? To inflict the most damage?
But what of the students? They are the forgotten equation in the fervor for a walkout. While we hope to instill the notion of responsibility in our kids, does a walkout fit that bill? Where in the lesson plan does it outline storming out and walking away from the kids mid-school year if you don’t get your way? Hopefully nowhere, but a walkout would seem to imply just that.
Let’s hope calmer heads prevail, for all concerned.
Ruthenberg is a multiple award-winning columnist and writer for the News & Eagle. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.