Education advocate: One possible solution to Oklahoma teacher pay debate

By Jennifer Monies, published August 28, 2015 at NewsOK.com

Jennifer Monies photoI think we can all agree that good teachers are not paid enough for the tremendous work they do. Research shows that a good teacher is the single most important school-related factor associated with student success, but a teacher shortage in Oklahoma prevents our schools from having a good teacher in front of every student.

Some say the best solution for recruiting and retaining teachers in the face of the shortage is an across-the-board pay raise. But this is prohibitively expensive considering the Legislature was forced to cut $31 million from the budget this year. Even a meager $1,000 across-the-board pay increase will cost taxpayers an additional $45 million. And will an extra $1,000 a year really influence already-frustrated teachers to stay in the classroom?

Our students don't have the time to wait until the budget improves. We need a strategic, Oklahoma-based solution to pay teachers in a way that incentivizes innovation and improvement while addressing our state's unique needs. To do this, we need to look at the data.

Oklahoma is, in fact, facing a teacher shortage, but not in every area; like with all jobs, some are harder to fill than others. We know, for example, that it is difficult to recruit teachers in inner-city districts and specialized teachers in rural areas. We know it's increasingly difficult to find highly qualified teachers in the areas of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). We know that many teachers are leaving the profession within their first five years for other opportunities, many of which pay more.

In the private sector, such imbalances are often closed with increased pay opportunities. Denton, Texas, has received considerable attention of late by offering $50,000 for first-year teachers, which is considerably more than the minimum first-year teacher salary Oklahoma. But the Denton School Board doesn't pay its teachers more because the Texas Legislature told it to do so. In fact, the teacher minimum wage under Texas state law is even lower than Oklahoma's mandatory minimum for teachers. The Denton School Board pays more because it understands, just as the private sector does, that increased pay is a factor in recruitment. This same targeted approach toward teacher pay can be aligned with our teacher shortage data to address the greatest areas of need in Oklahoma.

I don't mention this as a possible solution to punish career teachers, many of whom work tirelessly for their students every day and undoubtedly deserve a raise for their efforts. But if we continue to wait for the money to give every teacher in the state an across-the-board pay raise, we will likely be waiting indefinitely.

A differentiated pay schedule is only one possible solution to this issue. But until we are willing to accept there may be alternative solutions, we will continue to struggle to keep our best teachers where we need them most — in our classrooms.

Monies is executive director of the Oklahoma Educated Workforce Initiative.