Extended use of ‘emergency’ teachers approved

March 11, 2020

Ray Carter

In 2018, Oklahoma lawmakers approved around $600 million in tax increases, in part to fund teacher pay raises officials said were needed to address a teacher shortage that had forced schools to hire emergency-certified instructors who lacked traditional credentials.

Two years later, despite average pay raises of more than $7,000 per teacher, the impact of the tax increases and pay raises have been far less than proponents predicted, as evidenced by Senate passage of legislation to allow extended use of emergency-certified teachers in public schools.

Under current law, an individual with an emergency teaching certificate may teach for only two years.Senate Bill 1115, by Sen. Ron Sharp, would extend that time period for another two years, allowing up to four years of employment for an emergency-certified teacher.

“We use the term ‘emergency certification.’ In reality, it’s alternative certification.” —Sen. Micheal Bergstrom (R-Adair)

“We are reaching a critical situation,” said Sharp, a Shawnee Republican and former teacher. “They have now went through the numbers of emergency-certified teachers to 3,000-plus. Some of these are doing an excellent job and superintendents do not want to lose these teachers.”

Sen. Carri Hicks, an Oklahoma City Democrat who is a former teacher, suggested the existing supply of traditionally certified teachers should be enough.

“How many certified teachers do we currently have in the state of Oklahoma who are not inside the classroom?” Hicks asked.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister has previously said there are “about 32,000 in Oklahoma who are certified but not teaching in an Oklahoma public school.”

Sharp noted several members of the Senate are former teachers who retain their certification, and that many other teachers have retired or pursued other occupations.

“I think all effort is being made in which to try to get them to return to the classroom,” Sharp said.

Another former school employee, Sen. J.J. Dossett, also objected to Sharp’s bill.

“We have over 3,000 emergency-certified teachers this year. It’s growing every year,” said Dossett, D-Owasso. “When are we going to put our foot down and say we need to stop the emergency certification, we need to get teachers in the pipeline who are certified?”

But other former educators in the Legislature urged their colleagues to support Sharp’s bill.

“I want a highly qualified teacher in front of children as well,” said Sen. Brenda Stanley, a Midwest City Republican, a former schoolteacher and principal.

But if SB 1115 doesn’t pass, she noted that the Oklahoma City school district would lose up to 75 emergency-certified teachers, the Mid-Del district would lose 29, the Choctaw-Nicoma Park district would lose up to five teachers, and Putnam City would lose 40.

“We want to talk about over-crowded classrooms? That’s what we’re going to have, and it’s a sad thing,” Stanley said. “And I agree with what y’all have been saying, but I think for now this is a short-term solution for a very long-term problem.”

Sen. Micheal Bergstrom, an Adair Republican and former teacher, said the stigma attached to emergency-certified teachers is often unwarranted, noting some of the best teachers he encountered came to the profession through nontraditional means.

“We use the term ‘emergency certification.’ In reality, it’s alternative certification,” Bergstrom said. “These are people with degrees who have expertise in an area and have a passion for teaching that to our children.”

According to the Oklahoma State Department of Education, 2,440 individuals have sought emergency certification since last July. But 1,558 of those individuals were traditionally certified educators whose certification was for another position, such as a middle-school teacher who is now teaching in elementary school. Others have college degrees in the subjects they teach, but not an education degree.

Sharp noted school districts will have to “start making decisions very quickly” and replace many emergency-certified teachers in the next few months if nothing is done.

“This next fall, we are in a very serious situation,” Sharp said.

SB 1115 passed on a 36-11 vote. It now proceeds to the Oklahoma House of Representatives.