With Nearly Lowest Pay in U.S., Oklahoma Schools Struggle to Recruit Teachers

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Nick Conroy/Oklahoma Watch

Students in teacher Sommer Lyon's class at ECDC Public School in Tulsa watch intently as she shares the story of the Easter Bunny.

Source: National Center for Education Statistics

Like leaks in a levee, teacher shortages are springing up faster than Oklahoma school districts can respond.

Now, instead of shortages mainly in math, science and special education, schools are grappling with vacancies in all departments and grade levels, according to lawmakers and district recruiters.

Oklahoma City Public Schools has 403 teaching vacancies that need to be filled before next school year, up from three years ago, recruiters said. Tulsa Public Schools is struggling to fill 84 positions, up from the typical 30 to 40 vacancies.

Smaller districts are also struggling to recruit.

“All teachers are getting hard to find … We’ve had to broaden our pool of applicants,” said Ronald Martin, deputy superintendent of instruction for McAlester Public Schools, whose district of about 3,000 students is down four high school teachers, more than in each of the previous three years.

The growing scarcity of teachers, educators say, reflects a situation that has marked Oklahoma public schools for decades: The state pays its teachers some of the lowest salaries in the nation.

Now, combined with other factors, the lower pay is creating an even greater obstacle for schools to attract and retain good teachers.

Sommer Lyons, a Tulsa teacher, on weekdays…

Students in teacher Sommer Lyon's class at ECDC Public School in Tulsa watch intently as she shares the story of the Easter Bunny.

Sommer Lyons on weekends…

Sommer Lyons, a teacher at ECDC Public School in Tulsa, works a second job at Te Kei's restaurant to help make ends meet.

Ken Calhoun, who leads recruiting for Tulsa Public Schools, points to increased competition in surrounding states as his toughest challenge. His biggest competitors, Texas and northwestern Arkansas, offer better salaries and more classroom resources.

“Why is it getting harder? My gut tells me that the surrounding states have seen the need to put more money into education and teacher pay,” Calhoun said. “Oklahoma has not taken that step yet.”

Other causes include the high cost of a college degree, which can drive students to pursue higher-paying professions so they can pay off college loans; expanded opportunities for women beyond traditional fields such as teaching; and more intense demands in the classroom.

Better pay and other changes, such as more professional support for teachers, could alleviate the shortages, but more funding would need to be found, according to one state study.

Some existing teachers are considering leaving Oklahoma for better pay.

Tulsa Public Schools prekindergarten teacher Sommer Lyons, who works at ECDC Reed School, said she has considered moving to New York City.

Lyons makes $34,100 a year as a fourth-year teacher and also works an extra 15 hours on weekends waiting tables at a Chinese restaurant.

Lyons, a Teacher of the Year candidate, said New York’s average teaching salary of $75,279 has made her contemplate leaving her friends and family for better economic opportunities. The average teacher pay in Oklahoma is $44,128.

While the cost of living is higher in New York City, Lyons said that would not be enough to outweigh the extra $31,000 she could potentially earn.

“It makes me feel a little resentful,” Lyons said of the discrepancy. “We are called on to teach. We will keep doing our jobs regardless of pay, and legislators know that.”

Facts of Teacher Pay

Teacher pay in Oklahoma reflects the state’s overall K-12 funding.

In the 2012-2013 school year, Oklahoma spent $7,912 per student on average on public schools, ranking it 49th in the nation and last in the seven-state region, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.


Total teachers: 43,915
Average salary: $44,128
Average experience: 12.8 years
Percent with advanced degrees: 26 percent.
Gender: 78 percent female, 22 percent male.
Race/ethnicity: 87 percent White, 6 percent American Indian, 3 percent Black, 1.5 percent Hispanic, 0.4 percent Asian, 0.1 percent Hawaiian/Pacific Islander, 2 percent two or more races.
Sources: Oklahoma State Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics and Oklahoma Office of Educational Quality and Accountability.

That same year, Oklahoma’s average salary for teachers was $44,128, which ranked 49th nationally and lowest in the region. The ranking was lower than it was more than 40 years ago, in 1969-1970, when Oklahoma was 46th in teacher pay, according to the center. The state had the second lowest pay in the region at the time, beating only Arkansas.

When adjusted for inflation, teacher salaries in Oklahoma have risen by about $1,979 since 1969-1970, but remain lower than in 2009-2010. Surrounding states, such as Texas and Colorado, have increased teacher pay at a faster rate.

But teaching in Oklahoma does have its perks.

Teachers typically work eight hours a day in school. They have in-school hours that are friendly for teachers who are parents and want to be at home with their children after school. Teachers also get summers off, which they can use to work a second job or for leisure.

Teachers also receive good health benefits and, unless the Legislature changes it, a defined-benefit pension plan.

The number of hours teachers work during the school year goes well beyond their time in the classroom, involving preparation of lessons and grading of papers and exams.

Linda Hampton, president of the Oklahoma Education Association, said during the summer, many teachers participate in professional development, work on advanced degrees, tutor students or teach in summer school. They don’t get paid for the former two.

“These things are often a donation of their time,” Hampton said. “That’s because they want to be teachers. They are working more than 10 months in a year.”

Tax Cuts vs. Teachers

Some lawmakers agree Oklahoma’s education is underfunded and teachers are underpaid. But they add there is just not enough money available for much more.

Rep. Earl Sears, R-Bartlesville, said he empathizes with the struggles of teachers like Lyons, but other residents also must make hard decisions about where to live and what career to pursue.

Rep. Earl Sears

Sears, who sponsored an income tax-cut bill opposed by many teachers, said the need for more education funding comes at a time when the state is in a fiscal pinch. More funds also are needed for public safety, mental health and corrections.

Sears believes that a friendlier tax climate will attract more private companies to Oklahoma, generating more economic growth and a bigger tax haul.

The Senate’s income tax-cut bill, which adopted provisions of the House bill, was sent to the governor Wednesday.

“I will never forget who sends money to Oklahoma City,” Sears said. “It’s the taxpayers. And I feel very comfortable sending some of this money back.”

Opponents of the tax cut say Oklahoma’s tax burden already is low, and that the best way to attract more business is to maintain a quality education system and invest wisely in public essentials, including health.

Hampton said when it comes to teacher salaries, the state has been kicking the can down the road for years.

While teachers don’t go into the field just for the pay, they need to be paid enough to support themselves and their families.

“It’s sort of like being taken for granted,” Hampton said. “They’re (teachers) doing a good job but we can’t pay them more this year, but that’s OK because they’re going to still do a good job.”

A bill raising teachers’ base pay by $2,000 failed to gain traction in the Legislature this year. State Superintendent Janet Barresi has asked districts to voluntarily implement the pay hike using reserve funding. The minimum starting pay for teachers would increase to $33,600.

Barresi’s proposal has met with resistance from school administrators, who say the raise is not sustainable without increased state funding.

“I know that’s not sustainable, but let’s break that logjam,” Barresi told Oklahoma Watch. “Let’s show the Legislature what this will do for morale.”

Others options are to increase the state’s horizontal drilling tax or franchise fee or increase education earmarks in the budget. But it’s unclear if such hikes will pass and how much they would be.

Recruitment Push

Districts are stepping up recruitment and trying to show there are reasons to live in Oklahoma despite the low pay.

Tulsa and Oklahoma City public schools are recruiting in regions that have too many teachers or a higher cost of living, such as New England.

The districts also are recruiting in Spain for teachers who can speak both English and Spanish so the schools can meet the needs of growing numbers of Hispanic students whose primary language isn’t English. Tulsa offered 12 jobs and Oklahoma City offered 16 jobs to those candidates for next school year.

Some districts are offering up to $2,000 signing bonuses for hard-to-fill positions. Oklahoma City offers a $500 retention bonus to keep experienced teachers.

Bianca Rose, who leads recruitment for Oklahoma City Public Schools, highlights the state's economic growth and low cost of living in trying to attract teachers.

Bianca Rose, who handles recruitment for Oklahoma City Public Schools, said she tries to highlight the state’s economic growth, the low cost of living and the region’s cultural attractions as reasons to make the move.

One of the biggest draws, especially in Spain, has been the Oklahoma Thunder.

“Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook have been very helpful to our recruitment efforts,” Rose said of the team’s star players.

The district, which is in the middle of its biggest recruitment push ever, hired 58 teachers last week.

An Oklahoma State Department of Education study released in January recommended several changes to address the teacher shortage.

Among them are boosting compensation; providing more professional training and support for teachers; easing certification requirements to better match those of surrounding states, and allowing teachers to advance their careers, such as through mentoring, without having to go into administration.

The department plans to release more details on the scope of the shortage this summer.

Younger teachers say something needs to change to keep the career viable.

Kevin Pearson grew up wanting to be a music teacher. Now, six years into his career at Tulsa Public Schools, the Sand Springs native questions whether he can keep his dream job.

He makes $34,900 a year and also plays piano during church services each Sunday for extra cash.

That’s better than having to wait tables or manage a parking lot right after working in a classroom, he said.

Pearson said he knows several early-career teachers who have to moonlight to make ends meet.

“It’s like a big ol’ slap in the face,” Pearson said of teacher pay. “I hope to stay and make a future in the state of Oklahoma. I do not feel like people appreciate what we do.”

Nate Robson can be reached at nrobson@oklahomawatch.org

  • Cassie

    I don’t know where they get the information about the average salary other than the cost of administrators make so much. I am a career teacher with 24+ years and I am just now making the average pay and I teach in one of Oklahoma’s largest school systems. It says the average years is 12 years. Wow!!!!! Where do they get their information?

  • Paul Wilson

    I am in my 8th year of teaching High School Sciences. Twice my students have had the highest test scores in the history of the school (once we even had 100% passing & 35% scoring advanced), I won a national teaching award, and am finishing my Master’s degree. I will make just $32,000 this year.

    I will EASILY spend 50 hours working each week that school is in session (how do you think all those labs get set up and cleaned up, papers get graded, and assignments get created?), and as we get closer to the EOI tests, some weeks my work hours will go beyond 60.

    3 times in my career, my wife and I have housed a troubled student (we have an apartment on the back of our home), where we helped them with homework each night to get them caught up in school. Once we had a student live with us for a few weeks after his mother died of cancer, once it was a teenager whose parents were arrested for dealing drugs, and once it was a kid from a single parent home & his parent had left for a two-week work stint. We even taught one of them how to drive, and payed so he could get his driver’s license.

    Why do THOSE kind of stories not make the news, or enter into the discussion? We, as teachers, do a HECK of a lot more than just teach little Johnny how to read and write. It’s high time the state recognized that!

    • ann

      Amen! I teach elementary and more often than not I have to buy school supplies that students have not bought, every year I had to buy clothes, coats, shoes, and even food.

  • Susie McMurtry

    this is just skewed & wrong information! this is my 20th year teaching, i teach special ed, i have a master’s degree from OU, & have built my HOUSSE in spec ed, english/lang arts, math, social studies.
    certifications too numerous to mention… i have not had the luxury of an
    8-hour workday since i started teaching, and i work all summer to make ends meet. Oh, did i mention that i am still a couple thousand $hort of the “average” salary?

  • Terri Bishop

    Come on. I am really tired of how little teachers make. OK! Teachers work about a total of 180 days a year. They are given holiday and vacation pay.

    An ordinary or a person with a degree works 365 days a year and makes about or less than what a teacher makes. Usually vacation and sick pay are accrued month to month and it’s a whole year before a week can be accounted for.

    Summing up: Teachers work 365 days a year and you can get the pay that you think you deserve.

    • Kimi

      In our state, teachers work on average 50 to 60 hours a week during the school year. During the summer many are taking classes to fulfill their continuing education requirements which they pay for and get no pay to take. Many tutor kids or work during Summer school…which is volunteered time again. With over 1000 teaching positions going unfilled,your child will not have the education to go on to college and go into a higher paying career. We are raising children who’s public educations will inspire them to be clerks at 7-11, which pays better than teachers.

    • Justin M

      No one works 365 days a year, not to mention that teaching is an EXTREMELY important job and is very stressful, under appreciated, and underpaid. Sounds like you have been poorly educated or maybe willfully ignorant.

    • C.J.

      You really need to get your facts straight. We are paid only for the days we work. We receive no “holiday pay” or paid vacation leave whatsoever, unlike the private sector. We receive ten days per year for sick leave. We receive no pay for our “summer break”. We are not paid for the days before school when we must come in to set up our classroom (which we had to pack up on our own time at the end of school) and prepare for the new year. We are not paid for much of the professional development coursework we are required to complete each year. We are not paid for the times we come early and leave late to tutor students. We fund our classroom decor, much of our supplies and a great part of our curriculum. We feed children who have no food at home, buy them coats and supplies, send home snacks, and give them a loving place where they are welcome each day. We receive no “overtime” pay, although the average teacher workweek is 50 or more hours per week. I work 12 hour days on a regular basis. I have worked for 25 years in education and I am just now at the “average” salary that is always quoted and I am almost off the pay scale. The salary figures reflect administrators that hold teaching certificates even if they do not teach. This also reflects in an incorrect student to teacher ratio that is bandied about. In order for true classroom teachers to be earning that average salary, the majority of the teaching force would have to have advanced degrees and/or over 25 years experiance. That is not the case. I have worked in the private sector and you who have only experienced that have no idea just how much more a teacher is responsible for. We don’t even get to go to the restroom when we need to and to use one of the “sick days” requires so much preparation on the part of the teacher that it is often easier to work while ill. At certain times in my life, I have even held down four jobs trying to make ends meet. I chose to be a teacher (I was a National Merit Scholar and had my choice of careers), but that does not make it fair that we are compensated so poorly for what we do with so little support, especially with all that is required of us.

  • Dee Covan

    Those outside of the profession of teaching have mistaken perceptions as to the time demands upon a teacher. The work week is 50-60 hours per week during the school year. Students get days off while teachers are in all day in-service requirements or workshops. Teachers are required to work and plan with others in there related field. School districts use teacher to work on creating across the board curriculum rather than hiring curriculum specialists to do the job. Teachers are required to participate in workshops and continued education experiences in the summer. We get about 2/3 of the time off that our students get. Our nights, weekends, and holidays are filled with grading papers, writing lesson plans. We work in public relations in dealing with parents, attending and making recommendations at IEP’s. We are responsible for classroom management, discipline, keeping students engaged when the students may or may not receive adequate food, sleep, supervision or help with homework at home. Yes, we get some extra vacation in our package that others may not get at the beginning of a new contract. However, we use all of it to plan and expand the scope of our classroom.
    After all of this: administration usually takes the students’ words over ours. We have the student’s back and the school’s back. No one has the teacher’s back.
    Now as teaching to the test becomes the rule, teaching is becoming less fulfilling for the teachers and far less interesting for the students. Yet, it is the teacher’s sole responsibility to connect with each student on an individual basis, individualize teaching to each of our 30 students while trying to maintain control of the classroom.
    Teaching is an incredibly selfless profession. You have to have a passion for your subject and compassion for the kids. These are the only reasons to teach, because you’ll be out there with no one to watch your back. It has to be done for the love…

  • Tom

    I’m a retired teacher. People need to realize that teachers only get paid for the nine months they work. They can get paid nine times a year, or twelve…but they only get paid for their nine months of work. The idea that we get paid for our summers off is bogus.
    Also, I now realize that walking on the grounds of the state capitol does no good. Each teacher needs to drive a bus load of kids to the capitol, drop them off at 8:00 AM and come back at 4:00 PM to pick them up, and see how our elected officials handled them for a day.

  • teach

    I have taught at Bethel for 11 years and don’t even come close to the average!

  • Justin

    I originally wrote a long reply that broke down everything that is wrong with this state. It was everything I personally know to be true from my experiences here and around the globe along with my military and government career and exposure. I would have left it, but it was too lengthy for anyone other than a conspiracy theorist to remain focused on. I’ll just make one statement and you all can just speculate that I know what I know and enough of it to provide you with sound advice. Get out of Oklahoma and don’t feel bad about it. I know that kids here need an education too, but it’s not a priority for the government and won’t be anytime soon. You don’t hit 49th overall based on budget issues. You hit 49th because it’s not a priority. Oklahoma and it’s government spends more on prisonerd and detainees than it does on students. It’s in the prison and oil business. That money will never fall into the communities it’s going to the pockets of the same people voters continue to reelect. You can’t turn around this level of ignorance and inspire enough of these people to vote change in this decade. People here are brainwashed and it’s easy to so because an ever increasing majority are uneducated and poverty stricken. These miserable souls don’t even hit the polls to vote Even more problematic there are a large number who vote a certain way because they feel it elevates their social status. It’s rediculous to me that a person living on foodstamps or WIC can walk into a booth and vote for a party that wants to take those benefits away. Once the population has hit that level of ignorance and votes to reelect the same problematic Governor despite her being ranked the worst Governor in the nation…ahhh hahaha! I almost did it again. Just trust me I could write a book with a thousand arrows pointing to the problems along with insurmountable evidence and people in this state still wouldn’t listen or change. For that very reason…I won’t waste my time. Move out! I moved here to find myself after my mimicry sevice. I grew up here and wanted to find peace. I found that this place is Ren time worse than it was when I left. I’ve resided in several other statesin my military career and all were better. I’m moving again within 2 years. I found what I was looking for here. That same level of disgust I had for this place when I decided potential death and war were better than scraping by in this place. Coming back here to be surrounded by ignorance, racism and just what I would call hate has given me what I need to be happy anywhere else in America but here. 🙂

  • Kayla


    The average person works 260 days a year… not 365! Teachers do not get paid extra for holidays or the summer, a regular worker gets paid time off, we get paid time off. All time off and holidays is included in that 31000 a year! I have a masters and I get paid 31,000 a year! The time off is not by choice.. it is legislation that determines how long children are supposed to stay in school during the year. It has determined to be between 180-206 days a year. So because of this we as teachers have to suffer, and in a job that is just as stressful if not more than those jobs outside of education? You have to deal with 30+ different personalities a day, teenage personalities….so you don’t think we deserve to live comfortably? I am middle aged and still in an apartment? Really???

  • Brad

    IT is true that teachers in OK are definitely underpaid in the public schools. Meanwhile Tulsa Tech wastes millions of dollars each year on superfluous things such as trying to build their own program to run their attendance, learning management system, etc. instead of using out of the box programs that can be modified. They also pay their administrators Texas salaries, especially at the top levels such as superintendent and associate superintendents. They pull in tax payer money while their placement rate is abysmal. As an example, their main population is secondary students who are not prepared for a job in let’s say 3D Animation because there are no jobs in this area. While even their welding completers don’t have as much success as Tulsa Welding School. The money they receive from taxes could be better put into the schools with better results. Starting salaries for teachers at Tulsa Tech can be as high as $50,000 with a bachelor degree. Don’t take my word for it check out their salaries at: Oklahoma Department of Career and Technology Education salary database with the Tulsa World. No one seems to be watching their spending so they go wild on wasting tax payer money. It’s shameful the amount they waste that could be going to general education. Too bad their superintendent has legislators in his back pocket or there would be investigations in Career Tech tax money and how it is spent.