By Jennifer Palmer, Oklahoma Watch
In South Dakota, one of two states with lower average teacher pay than Oklahoma, the Legislature in March approved a half-cent sales tax intended to boost salaries by thousands of dollars.
The other state, Mississippi, also is phasing in a teacher pay increase.
By contrast, when Oklahoma legislators adjourned Friday, they left ambitions of higher salaries for teachers unfulfilled. That means the state could find itself dead last in teacher pay soon unless more funding is generated.
The only viable option left this year — a penny hike in the state sales tax — awaits the decision of voters in November.
The situation means that school districts are bracing for continued teacher shortages as candidates seek higher pay in surrounding states or choose different professions. Some out-of-state districts, including Dallas and Las Vegas, are recruiting Oklahoma teachers, dangling the carrot of higher pay.
Teachers here haven’t had an across-the-board increase in eight years, though the idea appeared to be gathering steam. In 2015, State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister, a Republican, proposed a $5,000 pay raise to be phased in over five years. In her State of the State address on Feb. 1, Gov. Mary Fallin called for a $3,000 a year pay hike, noting that Oklahomans overwhelmingly support the move. “And we can do it without raising the state sales tax rate to the highest level in the nation,” Fallin said. “We can do it. I’m excited about it.”
A half-dozen bills were introduced this session to boost teacher pay.
Then, oil and gas prices continued to fall, state income tax cuts proceeded, and the state suffered revenue failures, contributing to a projected $1.3 billion shortfall next year. Teachers’ hopes dimmed.
In the end, appropriations to the Department of Education were reduced by 2 percent for fiscal year 2017, compared with the appropriated 2016 budget.
At $44,921, Oklahoma ranks 49th in the country in average teacher salary among states and the District of Columbia, above Mississippi and South Dakota, according to National Education Association data. The figure represents total compensation, including paid health and retirement benefits.
In Mississippi, teachers received a boost of $2,500 over two years, thanks to legislation signed by their governor in 2014.
Penny Tax Option
A penny hike would push the state’s combined state and local sales tax rate from 8.78 percent to 9.78 percent, higher than any other state.
State Question 779, being championed by University of Oklahoma President David Boren, would hike the state sales tax rate from 4.5 percent to 5.5 percent.
The tax hike was originally estimated to generate anywhere from $570 million to $615 million, with about 60 percent of the money earmarked for common education. Most of that money would fund a $5,000 a year raise for teachers.
With the economy still struggling, though, the projected haul is slipping. Current estimates by the Office of Management and Enterprise Services project the penny hike would bring in about $550 million a year. However, that would still be still enough to pay for the salary increases.
With more than five months until a vote, the chances of passage are unclear.
Hofmeister has neither endorsed nor opposed the tax. Fallin has alluded critically to the proposal. Some cities have come out in opposition, saying the tax hike would hamper their ability to fund local projects with sales taxes. Advocates for the poor have warned that sales taxes are regressive, meaning they fall disproportionately on low-income residents.
The Legislature briefly unveiled an alternative plan, but it was quickly scuttled before the end of the session.
Boren and other supporters acknowledge that a higher sales tax is not the preferred solution to education funding, but say they have no other choice because state lawmakers refuse to address an education crisis that could harm the state for generations.
“It is the only option that is being talked about that is gaining momentum,” said Alicia Priest, president of the Oklahoma Education Association. “We think our children deserve it.”
South Dakota’s ‘Heavy Lift’
South Dakota’s half-cent sales tax, intended to raise the state’s average teacher pay by $8,500, kicks in June 1.
Melody Schopp, the state’s secretary of education, characterized the initiative as “a really heavy lift” led by the state’s governor.
“For a conservative Republican state to make that sort of significant investment in teachers is kind of a landmark,” she said.
But the need was there, Schopp said. South Dakota was no longer regionally competitive and was struggling to recruit and retain teachers.
Revenue generated by the sales tax will be distributed to school districts based on a formula, with a portion set aside for property tax relief. Schools are required to spend 85 percent of the funds on teacher pay.
Schopp said one school district recently negotiated $9,000 across-the-board pay increases for its teachers.
The half-cent tax passed by the South Dakota Legislature follows a failed 2012 ballot measure to raise sales tax by a penny, with half earmarked for education and half for Medicaid.
Schopp said after years in 50th place for pay, teachers in South Dakota finally feel respected.
“They truly, finally feel like the work they do has been recognized,” she said.
Oklahoma Watch is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that produces in-depth and investigative content on a range of public-policy issues facing the state. For more Oklahoma Watch content, go to oklahomawatch.org.