Oklahoma representative Mickey Dollens plans to propose a bill he believes will lower teacher attrition rates in the state. Attrition rate, here, refers to the rate at which teachers are leaving, or in this case fleeing, the Sooner State in search of greener pastures and brighter financial opportunities.
Not that anyone can blame them: the average salary for Oklahoma teachers has in years past fallen under the national average by approximately $10,000. Representative Dollens means to improve teachers’ incentives for staying in Oklahoma by passing a bill which would pay off any teachers’ student debt — if they stay in Oklahoma for at least seven years, that is.
A plan like this already exists for math and science professors, as there was an especially desperate need for educators in those fields. Nevertheless, the significant expansion of this plan necessitates inquiry.
First, how would the state pay for this? Dollens hypothesizes that the student loans can be paid off using the money saved from lowering attrition rates. I presume this money to have been otherwise spent on funding programs for recruiting, training and retaining teachers.
This assumes a collection of low student debts amongst eligible teachers, which could be plausible, or perhaps even likely, but this assumption leads directly into my next question.
Is this really enough to motivate teachers to stay? The utility a teacher is bound to receive will vary greatly depending on the teacher’s debt. Assuming the debts are as affordable as Dollens supposes, this utility will be very low. For the utility to be high enough to legitimately convince anyone to stay in the state, the debt would be sizable, creating problems with Dollens’ solution.
It would be wrong of me, just as it would be the state legislature, to dismiss his solution and not provide an alternative, as Oklahoma’s education system is unquestionably a problem that needs addressing. To help me understand one of these alternatives, I spoke with economics professor Matt Hendricks.
Professor Hendricks has spoken in the past of significantly reshaping the salary schedule for teachers. Currently, most of the money made by teachers is at the back end, with extra pay for more experienced teachers. Hendricks instead advocates for moving this extra pay to the front end, rerouting it to younger teachers, who are more sensitive to their salary. This disparity in sensitivity comes from the higher mobility of younger teachers, half of whom will leave within five years of teaching at a school. Not only does it make sense to raise their pay to ground them at their institution, it might match their efforts to improve. Studies, like one by Professor Hendricks himself, have shown that there is a steep learning curve in the teaching profession, as most improve more in their first five years than they will in the remainder of their careers. When Hendricks informs others of this plan, it is often to superintendents whom he admits are “probably more focused on keeping people happy than doing their job.” This means appeasing older faculty, whose pay might be cut to bolster the salaries of the younger teachers. To remedy this, the government could, at some considerable cost but for some considerable long-term gain, maintain the current back-end leaning pay plan for older faculty and simply implement the new front-end pay plan for new hires.
Higher salaries are the kind of incentives Oklahoma legislators should be talking about when they discuss keeping teachers in the state, not the paying off of debts which might appear large but amount to a minimal dilution of funds over the years.