The shame of public education in Oklahoma (and America)

Over the years, having dealt with students coming out of public schools, having lectured at public schools, and having talked to many teachers (usually science teachers), I’ve come to really admire these people. They slave away for a pittance, often using their own funds to buy school materials, and they are vitally important to the education of our kids—and to society as a whole. Inspiring teachers make all the difference in a child’s life. I know that I, for one, probably wouldn’t be a scientist if it weren’t for my fourth-grade teacher Mrs. Burns, who was constantly doing science demonstrations, encouraging her kids, and showing infectious enthusiasm for science.  My view is that public-school teachers (I’m not talking about professors here!) should, given their societal value, make at least twice what they’re paid now (see below). A surgeon can help one patient at a time; a teacher can change the lives of many children at once.

And so, this new article in the Financial Times is especially depressing (click on the screenshot to go there).  Oklahoma is going down the tubes vis-à-vis public education.

Consider these facts:

  • With an average starting salary of $31,606, Oklahoma is the third lowest in the nation, after Mississippi and South Dakota. That’s about 1/5 of the lowest average salary of any branch of medicine in the U.S. The average salary for all teachers is $44,128, barely enough to support a family. The teachers haven’t had a raise in ten years.
  • Many school districts have had to cut back public schooling from five to four days a week. That’s considered a perk for Oklahoma teachers.
  • Health insurance erodes even those salaries: a single teacher’s monthly healthcare costs are $400, and another $480 for a spouse and $208 for each kid. As the article notes, one teacher’s aide earned so little (and had a family), that she paid the school $200 a month to work there.
  • Oklahoma is bleeding teachers to other states, and of course that’s going to really hurt public education.
  • The reason? Oklahoma decided to reduce taxes on oil revenues from 7% to 1%, in contrast to other states (it’s 11.5% in North Dakota). Income taxes have also been cut under both parties, with Democrats doing it out of fear that if they didn’t the Republicans would win. Now the Republicans are doing it. The state education budget for grades K-12 has been cut by 28.2% in the last 8 years. There are constitutional limitations on raising property taxes.

This has hit not just the schools, but public employees in general. Cops are told not to fill up their gas tanks, and drunk drivers don’t have their licenses revoked because the bureaucracy doesn’t have the dosh to revoke them. Some teachers even dig into the leftovers from food drives for poor people!

I’m not sure why this isn’t a pressing national issue—not just in Oklahoma, but in many other states. Here’s a map of teachers’ salaries (graded by color, but the site, Niche, gives the figures for starting and average salaries). Only the northeast, Alaska, the District of Columbia, and California offer decent wages to their teachers. The highest average salary I could find was New York’s $75,279 and that’s a big outlier: 71% higher than Oklahoma’s.

Of all the “infrastructure” Americans should invest in, education is the most pressing. Screw Trump’s wall: that money should go for education! How many teachers could be hired with the cost of that wall, which could go up to $20 billion—or more. That would buy 450,000 teacher-years in Oklahoma, or pay for 10,000 careers of teachers given a 45-year career.

h/t: Grania


  1. GBJames
    Posted February 19, 2018 at 11:08 am | Permalink

    Republican management of government comes at a cost.

    • phoffman56
      Posted April 9, 2018 at 7:03 am | Permalink

      Which is cause and which effect?

      Surely the election of Drumpf (and what’s similarly been happening in ‘fair’ US elections for decades) has a lot to do with the ignorance, as opposed to stupidity, of many with pathetic educations. Probably Brexit and the dickheads running Hungary and Poland are similar results from relatively clean democratic elections in countries with crappy education for the disadvantaged, but not nearly so bad, at least not for the rest of the world.

      • GBJames
        Posted April 9, 2018 at 7:09 am | Permalink

        They are entangled in a feedback loop. Republicans attack the education system for decades. We get credulous voters, easily swayed by propaganda to elect more Republicans.

  2. Posted February 19, 2018 at 11:27 am | Permalink

    All part of the plan. Cogs don’t have to reason or think or dream, they just need to do.

    • Desnes Diev
      Posted February 19, 2018 at 11:33 am | Permalink

      And the less they are educated, the easier they are manipulated to vote for the “good” party.

    • eric
      Posted February 19, 2018 at 11:38 am | Permalink

      Yes. I can’t help thinking that a conservative political operator could look at that map and say something like “we could swing PA from purple to red…if we can only get them to lower the education spending and standards.”

      • Posted February 19, 2018 at 11:49 am | Permalink

        There may be something to that. I’m no conspiracy theorist, I just have happened to be exposed to people with a certain way of thinking that is…caste-like. You are born, you attend your school, you work, you die. Any attempt to alter course is seen as deviant from the norm. Watch any movie, the trope is there. Speak with the salt-of-the-earth types; if you’re not from this neighborhood, if you dress differently, have interests other than sportsball, value thinking, push boundaries that aren’t related to a gym or physical prowess including status seeking, you are seen as deviant.

        Education opens eyes, makes one aware that yours is not the only conception of how to live. Controlling education, or withdrawing it entirely, is controlling a mind. Talk about the party of liberty, my ass.

      • Posted February 19, 2018 at 12:27 pm | Permalink

        I attended CMU (in Pittsburgh) in the early 2000s. PA was described to me as “Pittsburgh in the west, Philadelphia in the east, and Alabama in the middle.” As far as I can tell that’s not so false.

        • Paul S
          Posted February 19, 2018 at 2:00 pm | Permalink

          They don’t call it Pennsyltucky for nothing.

        • phoffman56
          Posted April 9, 2018 at 7:06 am | Permalink

          Glad it wasn’t Bob Jones U. or similar! Carnegie Mellon is a pretty high class place.

  3. ploubere
    Posted February 19, 2018 at 11:27 am | Permalink

    Another tragedy of bad policy that will erode the U.S. for decades.

  4. Randall Schenck
    Posted February 19, 2018 at 11:28 am | Permalink

    This is our secret or not so secret disaster in this country and it has been this way for many years. Even way back in the 50s when I was going to grade school, all the teachers were women because the pay was so low. I just saw something on the news yesterday concerning teachers in San Francisco. They are all leaving because they cannot afford to stay there. Pretty good – where the young high tech, high paying jobs have driven the teachers out. Here in Kansas the high court took the state to task for under funding state education by millions. They are still in trouble now attempting to properly fund the thing after years of republican government lowering taxes and taking away the money.

    It is just the ruin of American going on, nothing serious. A stupid society can no longer govern itself.

    • eric
      Posted February 19, 2018 at 11:42 am | Permalink

      I just saw something on the news yesterday concerning teachers in San Francisco. They are all leaving because they cannot afford to stay there.

      While their salaries are probably too low, this particular issue is also driven by the extraordinarily high prices in SF and the bay area in general.

      CA tried to mitigate this issue by capping property taxes (so, for instance, if you owned a house for a decade, you weren’t suddenly priced out of owning it). However I’m not sure there is an institutional fix to the problem of a huge number of wealthy people wanting to live where you’re trying to work a non-wealthy job, and driving up all the prices because of it.

      • Randall Schenck
        Posted February 19, 2018 at 11:58 am | Permalink

        Well, California has always had terribly high housing prices and as always, supply and demand has a lot to do with it. They tried prop. 13, years ago attempting to keep property taxes down. What they have always needed and never had was a movement to build affordable housing and lots of it.

        If all the teaches must leave San Francisco then yes, the wages are too low and the rent is way too high. I had to pay nearly $2000 a month for rent in Alameda 18 years ago. I think now in San Fran, if you can find it, maybe $4000 a month. Teachers and many others do not even think about buying housing in these areas, they just hoped they could rent but now that is beyond reach.

        • Randall Schenck
          Posted February 19, 2018 at 12:07 pm | Permalink

          And I guess by the way, it does not get much bluer than San Francisco, so you can’t blame all of this on republicans.

        • eric
          Posted February 19, 2018 at 12:16 pm | Permalink

          What they have always needed and never had was a movement to build affordable housing and lots of it.

          The cost/value of the structures is largely irrelevant; it’s the location value that’s driving everything up. Even if they were to build a bunch of cheap houses, if those houses are in easy commute distance to downtown, the price would immediately go up.

          I think if the city of SF wants its high school teachers living in the actual city, they’re going to have to provide teacher housing or something equivalent. Essentially, state-bought-and-paid-for housing that is then leased to teachers for the duration.

      • Posted February 19, 2018 at 12:24 pm | Permalink

        Prop 13 has been a disaster, and a key factor in the steady decline in California’s education standards.

        • Posted February 19, 2018 at 12:32 pm | Permalink

          Yes, passage of Prop 13 started the decline. It was introduced to solve a real problem. Increasing costs of education and other things were mostly met by increasing property taxes, placing the burden unfairly on property owners. However, the Prop 13 “solution” helped the property owners but didn’t deal with the underlying problem.

          Since then there have been many attempts to help out education. For example, the state lottery profits are supposed to go to education. Unfortunately, most of the funds don’t ever seem to get there.

          I had many arguments with my late father on this subject. He was the property owner and I took the pro-education side.

          • gluonspring
            Posted February 19, 2018 at 5:40 pm | Permalink

            It’s a self-reinforcing loop. The greater number of people there are who have to over-leverage themselves to get a mortgage for housing, the more it becomes a financial apocalypse for them if housing prices fall, the more they resist anything that might causes housing prices to fall.

            Once you’ve leveraged yourself into an $800k home, the market returning to a more sane $400k valuation is a financial calamity from which you may not recover. The surest way to lower housing costs is to build more, so the anti-building sentiment cuts across all political affiliations. It’s just a death match now between current property owners and everyone else.

        • Ken Kukec
          Posted February 19, 2018 at 7:22 pm | Permalink

          The perils of direct democracy.

          • Posted February 19, 2018 at 9:42 pm | Permalink

            California’s elected officials punt, so we legislate many things with referendums, financed by bonds.

  5. Posted February 19, 2018 at 11:30 am | Permalink

    You didn’t say (or I missed it) whether the teacher salary figures are adjusted for cost of living. I suspect California’s numbers won’t look good either if that is taken into account. I recently saw a TV interview with a teacher in San Francisco who can only afford to rent a room in someone’s house as her main living accommodation. Some teachers have gone homeless for significant intervals.

    It is really disgusting. This and Trump’s election make we really wonder about people’s intelligence and values.

    • Curtis
      Posted February 19, 2018 at 11:49 am | Permalink

      Exactly. Without comparing cost of living, this map is basically a lie used to attacked poorer states (and poorer places within the state).

      For an example of a better way, consider Oregon’s minimum wage law which varies according to location from 14.75 in Portland to 12.50 in rural areas. IMHO, there should be a much bigger difference but at least it is on case where progressives try to understand the pressure of living in a poor area.

    • gluonspring
      Posted February 19, 2018 at 5:47 pm | Permalink

      The graph is obviously absolute numbers, which are pretty meaningless.

      My wife taught school in TX and was easily able to buy a 3-bedroom home on her teacher’s salary (home cost about $160k). She teaches in Silicon Valley now and makes twice what she did in TX, yet it is not remotely possible she could buy a house anywhere within an hours drive of her school (median prices hover in the $800k range).

      Another irony. CA spends about 1.2X as much per student as TX does on education (last I checked, 8 years ago). However, since they pay almost 2X as much on teachers salaries, they actually have -less- money than TX for things like facilities, equipment, assistants, busses, and other such things. TX is full of shiny futuristic looking school buildings, but almost everything in CA, tech hub of the world, looks like it was frozen in 1970.

      Again, I think this is mostly a quirk, fallout from Prop 13 and the self-reinforcing loop it and other things created, than it is something that clearly relates to the political leanings of either state.

  6. Ken Kukec
    Posted February 19, 2018 at 11:43 am | Permalink

    We’ve got a balanced budget amendment, so screw the schoolkids, is the attitude of Oklahoma’s Burgermeisters. Despite being nowhere near a fault line, Oklahoma also leads the contiguous 48 in earthquakes, too. ‘Cause of fracking.

  7. Simon Hayward
    Posted February 19, 2018 at 11:50 am | Permalink

    I just pulled the local school district pay scales for a quick look. Having moved from Tennessee to Illinois in the last few years I’m very aware of the huge discrepancies in pay between districts across the country (my wife is a teacher). In my northern Chicago suburb, the published salary range is from $57,905 (for a brand new step one teacher with a BA) to $134,832 which requires a lot of extra experience, on the job training and additional degrees. This is based on a 183 working day year. This doesn’t seem terrible (we don’t pay postdocs, who are better qualified, as much as these new teachers) and is much higher than the scales in the Nashville suburbs where we previously lived.

    The other noteworthy difference between the two locations (TN and IL) is that here we pay a state income tax and greater than five-fold more in property taxes. Sales tax is about the same. Teachers here are also unionized, which I’m sure, helps. That may not be a practical solution in states like OK or come to that TN, union busting now being seen as close to godliness in many parts of the country.

    There is also the question of how much parents value education and how that is reflected in district performance. Despite its much lower cost, the results of national testing (ACT and AP scores) in Williamson County TN are broadly comparable to the Northern Cook County and Lake County IL school districts, probably reflecting well educated professional communities. Families with the money and motivation move to areas that provide good education if that’s what they value. The pity is the poor kids who never get a good education because their parents cannot or will not make those choices, or vote for politicians who will.

    • Paul S
      Posted February 19, 2018 at 12:19 pm | Permalink

      Agreed, my sister moved to Lake Forest because of the school district. Not everyone has that option.

  8. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted February 19, 2018 at 12:08 pm | Permalink

    Consider private schools, so-called charter schools, so-called home-schooling.

    Conflate with liberty – or choice, if you’re in an economic mood

    Fold in entrepreneurialism

    Cook for 500 years


  9. Randall Schenck
    Posted February 19, 2018 at 12:14 pm | Permalink

    I would mention one more thing…if our American school system was controlled and funded at the federal level instead of operated by 50 states, we might be able to save it but that is only a guess. The way it is now, I don’t see much chance. Good luck to all those current and future teachers out there.

    • Randall Schenck
      Posted February 19, 2018 at 1:08 pm | Permalink

      Also, what they do for you at the Federal level is pay COLA in the high cost areas. That is cost of living adjustment. Probably something the states would not do or cannot do. The fed does this all the time and they have to or they would never get workers in places like the Bay Area. Everyone would want to work in Mississippi or Alabama. When I was living in Hawaii I think I got something like 25% COLA.

  10. Posted February 19, 2018 at 12:25 pm | Permalink


    “Won’t anyone think of the children?”

  11. Posted February 19, 2018 at 12:29 pm | Permalink

    These figures should be correlated to cost of living. There are also big differences in both pay and COL from district to district within states.

    Meanwhile, over the past 25 years, the average professional athlete’s salary has quadrupled. Got our priorities straight.

    • Filippo
      Posted February 21, 2018 at 3:41 pm | Permalink

      I wonder what is the average reading level, by sport, of professional athletes.

  12. Mark R.
    Posted February 19, 2018 at 12:30 pm | Permalink

    Depressing. More evidence of America’s steady decline. Sadly, Betsy Devoss is a big part of the problem. When it starts at the top, not much hope for the bottom.

  13. Mike Anderson
    Posted February 19, 2018 at 1:09 pm | Permalink

    It looks like West Virginia also undervalues teachers.

    When politicians get rich and teachers are placed at the low end of the scale, that sounds like a sign of societal decline.

    • Filippo
      Posted February 21, 2018 at 3:43 pm | Permalink

      One occasionally hears of the occasional congressman (making $174,000/yr), upon leaving Congress, holding forth on wanting to “make some real money.”

  14. Steven E
    Posted February 19, 2018 at 1:29 pm | Permalink

    This is a just another symptom of the overall kleptocracy that is the US system. It needs to be understood systemically as a way of ensuring that labour prices are kept low. To this end there is heavy media pressure about teachers referring to short hours, extended holidays and high cost to the taxpayer. Teacher unions are demonized and teachers are referred to as lazy and low skilled. The systemic point is not that this is particularly directed at teachers but rather at all members of the labour class to change the conversation from “what is the value to society” to “you don’t deserve what you are paid.” It ensures a steady supply of people willing to work for much less than fair value to improve the profits of the owner class.

    • Steven E
      Posted February 19, 2018 at 1:30 pm | Permalink

      To add to this, the lower educational attainment is a side benefit in preventing people from either achieving higher status or gaining the critical thinking skills to question the system.

  15. Posted February 19, 2018 at 1:39 pm | Permalink

    When I was a kid in the early 60s, everyone assumed that education was something that your taxes paid for regardless of whether you had kids. In other words, the perception was that you had no choice in the matter.

    This idea was gradually eaten away by a sort of collective loss of innocence. Politicians learned that most voters would routinely ignore the ramifications of lower taxes but would reliably vote based on this simple message of putting money in their pockets.

    It is short-term gain (lower taxes) vs long-term loss (lack of education leading to worse crime, poor performance in the global marketplace, etc.). The only way education gets funded properly is if people assume that it is not a choice. Sadly, I don’t see a way to get back to that time.

  16. phoffman56
    Posted February 19, 2018 at 2:00 pm | Permalink

    Just a few days ago, concerning the invitation of Ken Ham to U. of Central Oklahoma, I asked

    “Are many students there beyond the mental stage yet of being children?”

    Educated there, parents educated there, etc., perhaps the answer is no.

    • phoffman56
      Posted April 9, 2018 at 9:12 am | Permalink

      Just realized this thread is pretty old; I somehow thought it was just today. So sorry for a few replies above which are about 3 weeks too late!

  17. Posted February 19, 2018 at 2:39 pm | Permalink

    It’s always amusing to me when the rich complain about “class warfare” and so many down here where I live financially cry about income inequality. I realize there is a pretty extreme difference but a lot of the issues with teachers and unions is a similar kind of “class warfare”. Why does that teacher/ironworker/plumber make more than I do? That can’t happen but instead of me trying to make more, let’s bring them down to my level so we make the same. Which conveniently leaves more money for the rich which they happily scoop up when we starve the schools of tax dollars or unions of union dues. The rich win, the less well off shoot themselves in the foot but feel better for it because those bastards at least aren’t making more than I am.

  18. Posted February 19, 2018 at 3:30 pm | Permalink

    I am a retired science teacher in Texas. If my former colleagues in Oklahoma are similar to those in Texas – and I suspect they are – I will wager that more than half of them actually voted for the very politicians who are screwing them over – and will do so again! Sad.

    • Randall Schenck
      Posted February 19, 2018 at 4:26 pm | Permalink

      I believe most states pay their part of the education bill from property taxes and people never want to see the property taxes go up. Texas I know, does not even have an income tax so they can’t go there. The old story is, you get what you pay for and I don’t see teachers getting the salaries they deserve anywhere.

      • Posted February 19, 2018 at 5:06 pm | Permalink

        Because so many use property taxes to fund schools, richer (per capita income I mean) school districts usually have more money at their disposal. With states getting squeezed, there are no state subsidies and richer districts are loathe to share their property taxes with anyone else.

        • eric
          Posted February 19, 2018 at 7:24 pm | Permalink

          Which is something the civil rights era tried to fix, by requiring local property tax income be shared more broadly. At least in some southern states. But either they were never as broadly adopted as needed, or we’ve rolled back those laws, or they weren’t as effective as hoped.

  19. Charles Sawicki
    Posted February 19, 2018 at 4:11 pm | Permalink

    The North Dakota oil tax is much less than 11.5%. The legislature is overwhelmingly Republican and their political campaigns are largely funded by oil companies. ND has essentially no ethics controls on campaign contributions, so that after an election politicians can take any left over money and use it for personal purposes (essentially bribes). When the price of oil dropped the legislature lowered the oil tax rate by 2%, it has never been close to 11.5%. Details of the present tax rates given below were copied from:

    A 5% rate is applied to the gross value at the well of all oil produced. The oil extraction tax rate is reduced to 2% for qualified production from wells completed outside the Bakken and Three Forks formations and the rate is 0% if the well qualifies for an exemption.
    The oil and gas gross production tax is imposed in lieu of property taxes on oil and gas producing properties.

    • eric
      Posted February 19, 2018 at 7:28 pm | Permalink

      Well that makes perfect sense. Use a 0% production tax to replace their property tax, because the lower rate will allow the state to make up the revenue on volume of oil produced. 🙂

  20. Helen Hollis
    Posted February 19, 2018 at 8:46 pm | Permalink

    I just wanted to ask if anyone is as old enough to remember (that went to public schools) how many actual days of the year a teacher worked?
    I could be off, but looking at the calendar for the last decade or so, it seems to be less than one hundred and fifty.
    I know some teachers will say they spend their summers working on a new plan.
    Yet, year after year they keep the same plan.
    School supply lists are at least fifteen years old in most schools, public or private.
    Happy to hear you met some dedicated to science in the public school system. Principals are only rated on reading and math. When I found this out, I did what I could to get more science in while not in school.

    • J. Pitre
      Posted February 19, 2018 at 11:36 pm | Permalink

      In my state (LA) school has always been 4 9-week periods or 180 days (at least since the late 60’s). Current contracts run 182-185 days.

      “I know some teachers will say they spend their summers working on a new plan.
      Yet, year after year they keep the same plan.”

      Forgive me if I misinterpret what you’re implying here, but it sounds like something I’ve heard before-teachers are overpaid and lazy. Well, a person working a 40-hour work week with 2 weeks vacation works 2000 hours in a year. I and many of my colleagues work 60+ hours per week for the 36 weeks of the school year or 2160 hours in a year. In addition to those hours most of my colleagues spend the summers attending classes/professional development, going to conferences, collaborating with colleagues, tutoring/coaching students and these days, writing new plans to keep up with new standards and district demands.

      I think it’s great that you recognize that in many districts science has taken a back seat to math and reading and that you’re actually doing something about it. Kudos to you. It’s distressing how little science many student get exposed to in elementary and middle school in many districts.

  21. SSE
    Posted February 20, 2018 at 10:34 am | Permalink

    “There is a place in America to take a standl it is public education. It is the underpinning of our cultural and political system. It is the great common ground. Public education after all is the engine that moves us as a society toward a common destiny… It is in public education that the American dream begins to take shape.”
    —Tom Brokaw

  22. nicky
    Posted February 20, 2018 at 2:39 pm | Permalink

    To an outsider this sounds absolutely appalling, nearly kind of colonial.
    In South Africa education is in a horrible mess too (to put it mildly), but at least there is a broad realisation that education is essential, should be a national priority.
    It is a common notion that if you want a ‘great’ nation (“again” or otherwise) good education is the first and most important step.

  23. chris moffatt
    Posted February 20, 2018 at 5:29 pm | Permalink

    Kind of makes one wonder what could be accomplished if the $1.3Gigabucks currently wasted on a useless DOD, “15 intelligence agencies”, 800 bases in foreign lands and associated MIC piggy troughs were spent on people, education and infrastructure.

  24. Diane G.
    Posted February 23, 2018 at 1:58 am | Permalink


  25. Posted April 8, 2018 at 5:08 pm | Permalink

    They probably make as much as the average worker in the area they live in. I had a teacher coming to a Meetup I was having and that is what she told me. Her salary was about the same as the average hourly paid worker in her area.

  26. Mickie Gaines
    Posted April 11, 2018 at 10:28 am | Permalink

    Why in the world does this country have to choose between securing our borders and providing enough funds for education.

%d bloggers like this: