Low-paid teachers in good company

By Edwin S. Rubenstein

We're all familiar with the recurrent headlines "Oklahoma police officers rank 43rd in pay" or "Oklahoma accountants' pay ranks 46th."

Wait a minute -- we don't see headlines like that!

What we do see are headlines like "Oklahoma ranks 47th in teacher pay." Why? It's because every year the education unions compile the data on teacher pay and issue a press release that gives reporters a story formula and some useful information.

Indeed, the publicity has been so easy to come by that the National Education Association figured it should release it twice a year, which it now does. Look for the inevitable teacher pay stories in the media later this month.

In its latest release (May 2003), the NEA ranks Oklahoma 47th in the nation in teacher pay at $34,744. But if we look a little deeper, we find that Oklahoma teacher salaries actually compare favorably to teacher salaries in other states, as well as to salaries of other workers in Oklahoma.

For example, the NEA salary data exclude fringes such as retirement and health benefits. Relative to their colleagues in surrounding states, Oklahoma teachers have generous benefit packages. Fringe benefits for K-12 instructional staff equal 21.3 percent of salaries in Oklahoma, according to Census Bureau data. By comparison, benefits average just 13.9 percent of teacher salaries in Texas, 19.6 percent in Missouri and 18.9 percent in Colorado.

Oklahoma public school teachers get generous health care benefits throughout their working years and, once vested, a pension throughout their retirement years. Total compensation -- salary plus benefits -- is estimated at $42,134 for the average teacher in Oklahoma. That's within 5 percent of the average compensation received by teachers in every contiguous state except Colorado.

And when tax burden and living costs are taken into account, Oklahoma teachers are compensated better than teachers in most surrounding states.

Teachers work far fewer days per year than other workers. The average school year in Oklahoma is 180 days. Add half a dozen or so days for parent conferences, professional development and planning, and the annual work year for most teachers is still shorter than 190 days.

By comparison, an accountant or lawyer with two weeks of paid vacation and 10 holidays or personal days will work 240 days -- nearly 30 percent more than public school teachers. Yes, good teachers stay up late grading papers, etc., but working late is hardly limited to the teaching profession.

What's more, a recent U.S. Department of Education survey found 5.2 percent of teachers are absent on any given school day. The absence rate for managerial and professional workers is just 1.7 percent of annual hours.

It's true that Oklahoma teachers are near the bottom in the 50-state pay scale. But so are most other Oklahomans -- from accountants (46th) to operations managers (49th) to CEOs (46th). Indeed, when we look at the big picture -- all occupations -- Oklahoma ranks 45th.

Rarely acknowledged is the remarkable effort that Oklahoma's taxpayers make on behalf of education. The NEA says Oklahoma ranks an impressive 14th among the states in K-12 education spending as a percentage of personal income. Perhaps taxpayers should issue a press release on that.

Rubenstein is president of ESR Research in Indianapolis. He was formerly a municipal bond analyst for Moody's Investors Service, senior economist at W.R. Grace & Co., contributing editor at Forbes magazine and staff economist for the New York State Commission on Education.

The Oklahoma Publishing Co. and its subsidiary, NewsOK.com.
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