Look closely at Texas on teacher pay
by Jonathan Small, president of the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs (OCPA)The Fort Worth Independent School District has rented ten billboards around Norman, Oklahoma City, Stillwater, and Tulsa advertising starting teacher salaries of $52,000 a year. Instructive. If we truly care about teachers, students, and student outcomes, then we must be willing to look at how Texas schools approach teacher compensation and especially how that state funds K-12 education. We must ask, how is it possible that Texas, particularly its large metropolitan areas, can offer such higher teacher salaries? Why doesn’t that state struggle to the degree that Oklahoma does during economic declines, especially during energy sector slumps? The predominant source of funding for schools in Texas is the property tax. Economic research shows that by far the property tax is the most stable and transparent tax. It is also probably the most accountable revenue source. Advocates for increased education funding in Oklahoma have repeatedly used Texas’ salaries and spending as their shining example, but they have failed to explain, or even to understand, the Texas system, the property tax and economic growth. Why? Why aren’t unions, administrators, parent-teacher associations, business leaders, and others advocating for changes to the Oklahoma Constitution to allow local voters to increase the millage levies for their school districts to have more stable funding, or to adopt Texas-style pro-growth tax reform to increase the number of taxpayers, so we can pay teachers more and have more classroom funding? Think about this. Fort Worth can offer starting salaries of $52,000 a year and Texas has no income tax at all. In fact, former Oklahoma teacher of the year Shawn Sheehan noted the lack of an income tax as a boon after he left to teach in Texas last year. Texas’ economy is booming. Texas borders Oklahoma’s entire southern border and sandwiches us in between other states with lower personal income taxes. If we truly care about teachers, students, the most vulnerable, and Oklahoma’s future, then we will work to modernize our property taxes as a part of pro-growth tax reform. Thankfully this session, the Legislature took a positive step forward when it adopted Senate Joint Resolution 70. If passed by voters, this bill will provide greater accountability in how local property tax dollars are spent and allow schools to choose teacher salaries and classroom needs over expensive football turf and exorbitant facility expansions. Although not a cure-all, SJR 70 is surely a step in the right direction. If we really want to compete with Texas in K-12 funding, then we are going to have to learn from them and implement some of their best practices.
Jonathan Small serves as president of the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs.