Teacher numbers climb, but trend may not last

December 2, 2019

Ray Carter

Over the last two years, state lawmakers have increased K-12 school appropriations by $638 million, an increase of 20 percent in state-appropriated funding, and raised teacher pay by approximately $7,400 per teacher. Teacher pay in Oklahoma now ranks the highest in the region, according to the Oklahoma State Department of Education (OSDE).

New figures suggest those pay increases have attracted more teachers to Oklahoma schools. But much of the increase apparently remains attributable to reliance on emergency-certified teachers, and retirements in the next few years could lead to an exodus that offsets much if not all of the workforce increase now underway.

In a recent press release, the OSDE reported that Oklahoma schools employed 41,305 teachers in the 2017-18 school year, the last school year preceding the pay raises. As of this year, the system now employs 43,056 teachers, a net increase of 1,751 classroom teachers over that two-year span.

“Because of concentrated efforts to attract and retain teachers over the last several years, we can now report that school districts are hiring and more people want to teach in Oklahoma,” said State Superintendent of Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister. “We still have work to do to ensure we have a sufficient educator workforce to reduce class sizes and bolster student learning, but this sustained uptick in numbers is a strong indicator that we have begun to reverse course and attract new talent to a profession with unparalleled impact on young lives. These numbers represent a win for Oklahoma kids.”

Based on those figures, for approximately every $364,000 in increased school spending over the last two years, the state has netted one additional teacher so far.

However, nearly two-thirds of the net increase may be comprised of emergency certified teachers who lack traditional credentials from a four-year college that would qualify them to teach in their current classroom.

In the 2017-18 school year, there were 1,851 emergency-certified teachers working in Oklahoma schools. As of October this year, there were 2,999 emergency-certified teachers in state schools. That indicates that out of the overall net increase of 1,751 teachers, 1,148 came from the ranks of emergency-certified instructors.

Thus, as things stand today, once you take out the surge of emergency-certified teachers, the state of Oklahoma has netted one traditionally certified teacher with a college degree in education for every $1 million in increased K-12 appropriations.

And the number of emergency-certified teachers has increased since the department issued its release. At the November meeting of the State Board of Education, another 92 emergency certificates were approved.

Not all emergency-certified teachers are individuals who have no professional education experience. In some instances, a teacher certified to teach in elementary school, for instance, must obtain an emergency certificate in order to teach middle-school classes.

The OSDE reports that of the first 2,159 requests for emergency certificates in this fiscal year, 1,385 had prior certificates. Even so, reducing reliance on emergency-certified teachers was cited as a major reason to raise taxes and increase teacher pay during the 2018 legislative session.

Because retirement benefits are calculated based in part on a multi-year average salary calculation, many teachers have chosen to remain in the profession for several more years at the new higher salary in order to secure a larger retirement paycheck when they leave the classroom. Slowing the rate of retirements is another way the pay raise has boosted the size of the total teacher workforce.

That trend has not escaped officials’ notice, including at a November legislative study on state pension systems.

“As soon as those salaries went up, they delayed their retirements,” Tom Spencer, executive director of the Teachers’ Retirement System of Oklahoma (TRS), told lawmakers.

The flip side of that coin is that many teachers are also expected to leave the profession within a few years as they achieve their maximum retirement benefit. According to TRS, there are currently 7,590 individuals who are already eligible for retirement today but who continue to work. By Dec. 1, 2022, it is estimated that 9,491 individuals will be eligible for retirement.

As teachers complete the years of service required to obtain the higher retirement benefit associated with the larger salaries approved by lawmakers, many educators are expected to leave the system. That could be a sizable exodus, as Carolyn Thompson, chief of government affairs for the OSDE, told officials at the October meeting of the State Board of Education.

“We have a cliff coming, kind of, in three years down the road from the teacher pay raise,” Thompson said.