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Jon Greenberg
By Jon Greenberg March 7, 2018

Are Oklahoma teachers the lowest paid? Nearly

Oklahoma is drawing national attention as its teachers, often with the backing of administrators, edge toward a strike for better pay and benefits. A group that tracks corporate tax breaks chimed in on Twitter.

"Oklahoma teachers are close to striking," said the Washington-based group Good Jobs First on March 6. "They are the poorest paid teachers in the US, in a state that gives nearly $500 mil in tax handouts to energy companies."

We looked at both the teacher pay and tax breaks in that tweet, and, with some minor caveats, both largely check out.

Scott Klinger of Good Jobs First told us the group relied on a news report that used data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Data we downloaded from the BLS website confirmed that in 2016, the average annual pay of Oklahoma’s elementary, middle school and high school teachers all ranked last among the 50 states. Depending on grade level, the states ranked just above Oklahoma at the bottom are South Dakota, Mississippi and Arizona.

The average across all three grade levels in Oklahoma was $41,834. Nationally, the average was $59,978.

Those numbers, however, included private school teachers.

Data gathered solely on public school teachers for 2017 by the National Education Association, an advocacy group for public school educators, tell a modestly different story. Oklahoma’s public school teachers stood slightly above those in South Dakota and Mississippi.

The NEA separated teachers into two groups, elementary and secondary. But taken together, teachers in South Dakota made $42,668, those in Mississippi made $42,925, while Oklahoma teachers made an average of $45,245.

The national average was $58,950.

This table compares the salaries for secondary school teachers based on the NEA and BLS data.

Secondary school teachers average yearly salary


NEA 2017


BLS 2016




Featured Fact-check


South Dakota






South Dakota


The cost of living varies between states and within states. Especially for Oklahoma where a third of the population lives in rural areas, cross-state comparisons of teacher pay become tricky. We explain that in depth in this article. By and large, the most detailed comparisons include factors that go well beyond cost of living and reach the same general conclusion that Oklahoma’s teachers are among the lowest paid nationally.

Oklahoma tax breaks

Every two years, Oklahoma’s Tax Commission reports on tax expenditures. Those are dollars that the state didn’t collect in order to give some group or industry a leg up. For example, low-income residents get a refundable tax credit of $40, and there’s a tax break for people who buy electric cars.

The tweet from Good Jobs First singled out energy companies as getting "nearly $500 million," and we found a total of $493 million in the 2016 report. The single largest amount was $402 million to investors in horizontally drilled wells. Coming in second was $29 million for drillers of new wells. A break for the costs of marketing and transporting natural gas reduced state revenues by about $14 million.

Approximately $500 million is large enough to make a difference. Total annual teacher pay for the three grade levels is about $1.5 billion, or about three times the value of the tax breaks. Which says nothing about the policy implications, but the amount is enough to matter in the overall state revenue and spending picture.

Our ruling

Good Jobs First tweeted that Oklahoma's teachers are the poorest paid in the country. By one measure from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, that’s accurate. But that includes private school teachers, and the current issue of teacher pay in Oklahoma is all about contracts for those in public schools.

A survey from the National Education Association that looks only at public school staff found that Oklahoma ranks third from the bottom in average teacher pay. That’s very low, but it’s not the lowest.

The tweet also said the state provides nearly $500 million in tax breaks for energy companies. State data backs that up.

The teacher pay data is the only wrinkle in this fact-check. We rate this claim Mostly True.

Update: After we published, we explored the issue of cost of living in greater depth in a separte article. The current version links to that article.

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Mostly True
Oklahoma teachers "are the poorest paid teachers in the US, in a state that gives nearly $500 million in tax handouts to energy companies."
In a tweet
Tuesday, March 6, 2018

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