Citing reports that low salaries are forcing many Oklahoma teachers to leave the state for better-paying jobs elsewhere, legislative leaders unveiled a program today that would give every public school teacher a $3,000 pay raise.
Senate President Pro Tempore Stratton Taylor and House Speaker Loyd Benson said the across-the-board teacher pay plan will be the Legislature's first order of business when lawmakers return for their annual session on February 7th.
"All of the statistics tell us that we have some of the best teachers in the country, but because we pay them so poorly, many are leaving Oklahoma for better jobs in other states," said Senator Taylor.
"To make matters worse, the low pay also prevents us from attracting good college graduates to fill the open teaching positions. As a result, we are facing a crisis in the classroom," said Speaker Benson.
Evidence documenting the need for a teacher pay raise is overwhelming, according to the legislative leaders. For example: Oklahoma ranks 48th in teacher pay, according to the most recent report from the National Center for Education Statistics.
Recent media reports indicate Oklahoma's low salaries have prompted many teachers to leave for more lucrative jobs in Texas, Kansas and other surrounding states. According to state education officials, almost 900 educators have left their Oklahoma teaching positions during the last six months, exacerbating an already existing teacher shortage.
The Texas Legislature and Gov. George Bush approved a $3,000 teacher pay hike last year, increasing the salary disparity between Oklahoma and the Lone Star State. On average, a veteran teacher in Texas makes $8,000 more than his or her counterpart in Oklahoma.
Because of Oklahoma's reputation for producing good teachers, out-of-state recruiters target Oklahoma, raiding schools with offers of better salaries and signing bonuses.
Because of the importance of the teacher pay issue, the two legislative leaders are planning to the put the legislation on a "fast track," passing it during the first few weeks of the legislative session.
"With the passing of each day, we risk losing another teacher to a better-paying job elsewhere. It's critical that we act quickly so the teacher pay bill doesn't get bogged down and ultimately become a bargaining chip in negotiations on other issues. Educators shouldn't be held hostage," said Speaker Benson.
The $3,000 across-the-board pay hike will cost an estimated $170 million. The legislative leaders are planning to use growth revenue to finance the program.
"This is a real raise with real money. Teachers deserve an honest pay increase program with no gimmicks or accounting shell games that raise class sizes to finance a pay hike," noted Senator Taylor.
It's not yet clear whether Governor Keating will support the $3,000 teacher pay program.
When he unveiled his education agenda in November, the Governor proposed only a modest "merit" increase for a handful of teachers and said he was willing to hold teacher pay "hostage" if necessary. In recent days, Governor Keating has indicated he might support a pay raise for more teachers, but only if the money comes from cuts within the current school budget.
The Governor's budget reduction ideas have included increasing class sizes and firing "excess" teachers, cutting school lunch programs and trimming "non-instructional" costs such as bus drivers, janitors, counselors and cafeteria workers.
"By all national rankings, we're near the bottom of the barrel when it comes to funding public education. Raiding school budgets for teacher pay raise money doesn't make much sense, especially when growth revenue is available to finance a salary increase," said Senator Taylor.