Free Market Friday: The school system, unpaid, leads to a shortage of teachers

Jonathan Small

For years, Oklahomans have been told that the way to alleviate the teacher shortage is to provide across-the-board pay raises. In 2018, lawmakers raised taxes and dramatically increased teacher salaries. An Oklahoma State School Boards Association official recently noted that teacher salaries have now been increased by nearly $10,000 each and public school appropriations have increased by $750 million.

But guess what? The shortage of teachers remains. The Oklahoma State Department of Education recently reported that Oklahoma schools have submitted 2,991 applications (and counting) to hire certified emergency teachers this school year. That’s more emergency certificates than before the pay raises.

Those in the private sector aren’t shocked to hear that a quasi-monopolistic, unionized system where people are paid based on seniority above quality isn’t appealing to many people – even with raises significant salaries.

It’s not a new trend. Senator David Bullard, a Republican from Durant and a teacher for 15 years, recently recalled how the seniority pay system was more disheartening to him than the low starting salary for teachers. After the challenges of his early years of teaching, Bullard recalled realizing that “down the hall was a coach who put five questions on the board” and did little real teaching, but who was paid “astronomically more money than me ‘because he’ I’ve been there for 30 years.

He recalled that “one of the best science teachers I think I have ever seen” quit teaching after five years partly because of the seniority-based pay system.

Besides seniority, the other way to improve income within the school system is for teachers to become administrators. But this forces them to leave the class.

Prior to my current job, I worked in the Oklahoma City school system and state government. In both systems, I’ve seen how paying people for longevity and not for results encourages mediocrity, not progress. When you pay employees based on quantity (years of service) rather than quality (classroom results), you tend to attract more people willing to just hold a seat for years than those willing to make a difference. immediately in children’s lives.

It’s hard for people to feel valued if they never get paid for the value they bring to their work. Until that changes, Oklahoma schools will continue to struggle to attract and retain the best teachers, and student outcomes will never reach their full potential.

Jonathan Small is chairman of the Oklahoma Public Affairs Council (

Jeremy S. McLain