Ray Carter | January 20, 2022

Democrat governor’s teacher plan mirrors Stitt’s, draws praise from education groups

Ray Carter

This week, Gov. Kevin Stitt signed an executive order allowing state employees to serve as substitute teachers without forgoing state pay for those days. The plan, which could significantly augment the pool of available substitute teachers in Oklahoma, is intended to help schools remain open for in-person learning at a time when many schools are closed because of COVID surge among staff.

The Democratic governor of New Mexico, Michelle Lujan Grisham, unveiled an almost-identical plan a day after Stitt.

While the provisions of the two plans were mostly the same, the response they received varied widely with little to explain the difference other than partisanship.

“Our schools are a critical source of stability for our kids—we know they learn better in the classroom and thrive among their peers,” Lujan Grisham said in a release. “Our kids, our teachers, and our parents deserve as much stability as we can provide during this time of uncertainty, and the state stands ready to help keep kids in the classroom, parents able to go to work and teachers able to fully focus on the critical work they do every single day in educating the next generation.”

That largely echoed Stitt’s comments from the prior day.

“I've said from the beginning that our students deserve an in-person education and our schools need to stay open,” Stitt said in his release. “The state has a responsibility to do what we can to help make that happen, which is why I have signed this executive order to help schools suffering from staffing shortages. I appreciate schools and teachers that are doing everything they can to provide in-person learning for their students, as well as the business community for stepping up.”

Stitt’s plan allowed roughly 32,000 state employees to serve as substitute teachers. Lujan Grisham’s plan did the same, although it required state workers to use administrative leave while working as substitutes and also included National Guard members.

In Oklahoma, Oklahoma Education Association President Katherine Bishop issued a tepid response to Stitt’s plan.

“The teacher pipeline and sub shortages were issues before the pandemic, and COVID has exacerbated these problems,” Bishop said. “Hopefully state employees and businesses can help in the short term, but we need to continue searching for long-term solutions.”

In contrast, Bishop’s union counterparts in New Mexico endorsed Lujan Grisham’s almost-identical plan in the governor’s own press release.

Whitney Holland, president of the American Federation of Teachers New Mexico, praised Lujan Grisham for “thinking outside of the box.”

“Targeted use of state workers and National Guard members will help ease the dire need for substitute teachers in our schools,” Holland said. “On behalf of New Mexico’s public educators, we want to offer our sincere thanks to those who will be serving their communities and our students with us through this program.”

Mary Parr-Sanchez, president of the National Education Association New Mexico, said Lujan Grisham “is recognizing this moment for what it is—a crisis,” and praised the Democratic governor for “doing whatever it takes to keep our schools going.”

In New Mexico, the head of the New Mexico Parent Teacher Association said Lujan Grisham’s plan will “help keep our students in school” and “create a stable school environment, as well as help parents who are having to juggle childcare and jobs.”

The Oklahoma PTA issued no public response to Stitt’s plan on its website or social-media platforms.

In Oklahoma, several Democrats responded to Stitt’s plan by suggesting that increasing the supply of substitute teachers is offensive to full-time teachers and even potentially dangerous.

Oklahoma Superintendent of Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister, who is seeking the Democratic gubernatorial nomination to challenge Stitt in this year’s election, bashed efforts to increase the number of substitute teachers in a Jan. 13 interview given to KRMG in Tulsa prior to Stitt’s announcement. In that interview, Hofmeister said that “flooding our schools with untrained volunteers is not the answer, and puts our children further at risk.” After Stitt’s plan was announced, Hofmeister dismissed it as “a cup of water on a raging fire,” although she offered no significant counterproposal, other than to suggest the National Guard should be deployed to run school buses and lunchroom operations.

State Sen. Carri Hicks, D-Oklahoma City, said Stitt’s effort to boost the supply of substitutes “diminishes teachers’ contributions and expertise in the field of education, undermines the safety of our classrooms and ignores the complexity involved in educating a child.”

Rep. Forrest Bennett, D-OKC, said Stitt’s effort to increase the supply of substitute teachers reminds full-time teachers “how little this administration thinks of their profession.”

Rep. Andy Fugate, D-Del City, called the plan “another slap in the face of Oklahoma’s hardworking teachers” that would “replace quality educators with babysitters.”

Democrats’ comments were in notable contrast to the opinions voiced by some school-district leaders at the local level.

“Our community in Dover, like everywhere, has been hit hard by COVID and we appreciate the governor allowing state employees to help fill our substitute teaching need,” said Max Thomas, superintendent of Dover Public Schools.

“I applaud the governor and the State Chamber for stepping forward with an innovative solution that should help us do everything we can to keep schools open,” said Kent Southward, superintendent of Ringling Public Schools. “I hope that in this time of need, business and state employees will help us out and will also consider serving as substitutes in the future.”

“I am grateful to our leadership for seeking creative and appropriate solutions to assist us in getting through this deeply trying time in our schools,” said Chris Brewster, superintendent of Santa Fe South Charter School. “These decisions will open the doors for hundreds of our Oklahoma public servants to help keep our doors open. Thank you.”

Ray Carter Director, Center for Independent Journalism

Ray Carter

Director, Center for Independent Journalism

Ray Carter is the director of OCPA’s Center for Independent Journalism. He has two decades of experience in journalism and communications. He previously served as senior Capitol reporter for The Journal Record, media director for the Oklahoma House of Representatives, and chief editorial writer at The Oklahoman. As a reporter for The Journal Record, Carter received 12 Carl Rogan Awards in four years—including awards for investigative reporting, general news reporting, feature writing, spot news reporting, business reporting, and sports reporting. While at The Oklahoman, he was the recipient of several awards, including first place in the editorial writing category of the Associated Press/Oklahoma News Executives Carl Rogan Memorial News Excellence Competition for an editorial on the history of racism in the Oklahoma legislature.

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