Teacher numbers decline despite pay raises

August 20, 2020

Ray Carter

In 2018, lawmakers voted to raise taxes by roughly $600 million with a significant share of that money going to teacher pay raises, and then voted to raise teacher pay again in 2019. Over those two years, teacher salaries increased by an average $7,400 apiece. Lawmakers argued the pay raises would eliminate the state’s teacher shortage and draw more educators to Oklahoma’s classrooms.

It has not worked out as predicted, and lawmakers were told Wednesday to expect an outright decline in the number of teachers in state schools this year.

“We just surveyed all the schools in the state, as we do every year for teacher-shortage survey, and you can probably guess in this year with everything going on it’s a little worse,” said Shawn Hime, executive director of the Oklahoma State School Boards Association. “We expect 300 to 500 fewer teachers this year, based on that survey, statewide.”

Hime made those comments during a study conducted by the House Appropriations and Budget Subcommittee on Education. He said the shortage is the result of teachers choosing to leave the profession and school officials choosing not to fill vacant positions due to anticipated state budget shortfalls in the coming year. A shortfall of up to $1 billion has been predicted for next year’s state budget due to low oil prices and the impact of the COVID-19 recession.

While COVID-19 may play some role in the predicted decline, many challenges in attracting teachers preceded the pandemic, despite the massive increase in average pay.

While the number of teachers in Oklahoma schools initially increased after the pay raise, state records showed there would have been a net decline had it not been for growth in emergency-certified teachers.

Overall, from passage of tax increases in 2018 to December 2019, the state netted one additional teacher for every $364,000 in increased school spending.

And a top official at the Oklahoma State Department of Education (OSDE) indicated those numbers may effectively be inflated as the result of teachers who chose to defer retirement. State retirement benefits are tied to the top three to five highest years of pay, depending on when a teacher entered the system. As a result, some teachers chose to teach a few more years because they would receive larger retirement benefits if their final years of salary included the $7,400 increase.

Noting those factors, the chief of government affairs at the OSDE warned in October 2019 of a pending exodus from the teaching profession, saying, “We have a cliff coming, kind of, in three years down the road from the teacher pay raise.”

Officials have also said any shortage of teachers is not the result of limited supply. In December 2019, education officials said there remain about 32,000 people in Oklahoma who are certified but not teaching.

Recognizing that pay raises have not generated the necessary increase in traditionally certified teachers in Oklahoma schools, lawmakers voted this year to extend the number of years an individual may teach with an emergency certificate from two years to four.