Ray Carter | December 30, 2019

Shortage of applicants, not teachers, plagues Oklahoma schools

Ray Carter

When lawmakers passed historic tax increases in part for teacher pay raises in 2018, it was argued that schools’ reliance on emergency-certified teachers demonstrated the need for those actions.

Today, the narrative has changed. Officials now say Oklahoma does not have a teacher shortage, but instead suffers from a shortage of teachers willing to work in Oklahoma schools. And some officials say the state needs to increase its use of emergency-certified teachers and make it easier for teachers from other states to obtain jobs in Oklahoma.

At December’s State Board of Education meeting, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister noted the state labor force includes many traditionally qualified teachers who choose not to work in Oklahoma public schools.

“There are about 32,000 in Oklahoma who are certified but not teaching in an Oklahoma public school.” —Joy Hofmeister

“We know we have a number of teachers who continue to remain certified and keep that certification active every five years,” Hofmeister said.

She said state officials know “there are about 32,000 in Oklahoma who are certified but not teaching in an Oklahoma public school.”

Based on that figure, it appears Oklahoma’s teacher supply far exceeds job openings. According to a survey by the Oklahoma State School Boards Association, there were around 600 teaching vacancies statewide at the start of the current school year.

Yet reliance on emergency-certified teachers continues to climb, despite the availability of traditionally certified teachers.

When tax increases and pay raises were approved in 2018, state politicians suggested those changes would lead to an influx of traditionally qualified teachers. Since the 2017-18 school year, it’s estimated more than 1,700 classroom teachers have been added to the system. But it appears the majority of that net increase is due to emergency-certified teachers.

In the 2017-18 school year, there were 1,851 emergency-certified teachers working in Oklahoma schools. As of October this year, the Oklahoma State Department of Education (OSDE) reported there were nearly 3,000 emergency-certified teachers in state schools. Out of the reported overall net increase in teachers, nearly two out of three educators were apparently emergency-certified instructors.

However, a memo prepared by the OSDE staff shows that emergency-certified teachers defy some stereotypes touted in 2018. While the difficulties of attracting science and math teachers in higher grades is often discussed, the department’s records show 41 percent of emergency-certified teachers are working in elementary education or early childhood positions. The number of emergency certificates issued this year for elementary teachers exceeds the number issued for all major math and science courses combined.

Also, nearly 64 percent of teachers who have emergency certificates have traditional teaching degrees in another subject area. For example, in December the Eufaula school district asked the State Board of Education to authorize an emergency teaching certificate so a candidate with a bachelor’s degree in elementary education could teach an early childhood class.

One former schoolteacher now serving in the Oklahoma Legislature believes the state should increase and extend the use of emergency-certified teachers in public schools.

Sen. Ron Sharp, R-Shawnee, has filed Senate Bill 1115 to allow school districts to extend emergency teaching certificates indefinitely. Under current law, emergency certificates can be issued to the same person for no more than two years. Sharp said the two-year restriction on emergency certificates “is causing us to lose educators, which increases class sizes and negatively impacts academic success.”

“Senate Bill 1115 will allow those who don’t wish to get their alternative certification to continue teaching if approved by their local school board,” Sharp said.

Under Sharp’s legislation, a school could continue renewing an emergency certificate without limitation and could continue paying the teacher at an entry level of the teacher salary schedule. 

Another lawmaker believes Oklahoma should reduce the regulatory barriers that may discourage out-of-state educators from applying for Oklahoma jobs.

“Even with the historic pay raises and budget increases, we’re still facing a teacher shortage. We’ve got to figure out a way to increase the potential pool of teacher applicants, and attracting out-of-state teachers is one way we can do that,” said Sen. Adam Pugh, R-Edmond. “However, we need to get rid of some of the roadblocks that are keeping out-of-state teachers from continuing their careers in our classrooms. Recognizing their teaching certificates and years of service is a great first step.”

When teachers move to Oklahoma from another state they must get re-certified, which can require taking competency examinations and meeting other requirements. Also, Oklahoma gives credit for only five years of teaching experience to applicants from other states, regardless of the out-of-state teacher’s actual years of experience. Pugh noted that can significantly lower the teacher’s potential salary if he or she takes a job in Oklahoma. 

Senate Bill 1125 would require the issuance of a teaching certificate to anyone who holds a valid out-of-state teaching certificate with no other requirements except a criminal history record check.

Senate Bill 1126 would grant a teacher credit for all years of out-of-state or out-of-country teaching experience.

“We’re losing qualified teachers to other states or industries simply because they have an out-of-state teaching certificate, and then we’re ignoring their years of service,” Pugh said. “This is especially hard for teachers in military families who are re-stationed to Oklahoma. We’re in desperate need, but these rules are not welcoming to these potential teaching applicants.”

While pay raises were touted in 2018 as a major solution to Oklahoma’s education challenges, polling of former educators at that time suggested pay alone was not going to dramatically change school dynamics.

In 2018, a survey of 7,546 teachers who had left Oklahoma classrooms found that “only 34% indicated they are not teaching because of pay or a better opportunity.” Just 31 percent of those surveyed said they would return to the classroom if pay was increased, while 62 percent said it would take more than a higher salary to lure them back.

“For veteran teachers, classroom management and freedom to practice their craft were almost as important as pay,” the poll’s executive summary noted.

Hofmeister said the OSDE is following up on that 2018 effort and is “in the field with an additional poll” that will be “re-surveying those who completed the entire original survey.”

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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