Ray Carter | October 29, 2021

Teacher shortage persists despite massive pay raises

Ray Carter

In 2018, Oklahoma lawmakers approved hundreds of millions of dollars in tax increases, which officials said were necessary to significantly increase teacher pay and reduce the state’s teacher shortage.

New figures from the Oklahoma State Department of Education show that approach did not achieve the promised results.

At this month’s meeting of the State Board of Education, officials with the Oklahoma State Department of Education reported that thus far in the current state budget year, which began July 1, schools have submitted 2,991 requests to use emergency-certified teachers.

The number of emergency-certified teachers now in Oklahoma schools is greater than the number prior to the passage of tax increases and teacher-pay raises. In the 2017-18 school year, there were 1,851 emergency-certified teachers working in Oklahoma schools.

During the 2018 debate over tax increases, the number of emergency-certified teachers, who do not hold traditional degrees in a specific teaching field, were declared to be evidence of a chronic teacher shortage.

The growth of emergency certifications does not mean Oklahoma classrooms are staffed by individuals with no background or training in education, however.

Of the 2,991 requests for emergency certification filed so far this year, 1,543 individuals have been teachers who are certified in areas other than the one they are teaching in today, such as a middle-school teacher who now works in a second-grade classroom.

That fact was noted by State Board of Education member Jennifer Monies.

“There are quite a few in here that are certified teachers who just aren’t certified in the subject that they are in,” Monies said. “That stood out to me.”

The teacher shortage is also centered in a relative handful of districts. While Oklahoma has more than 500 school districts, nearly one-fourth of emergency-certified teachers are employed in just three school districts: Oklahoma City, Tulsa, and Putnam City. Oklahoma City has far more emergency-certified teachers than any other district with 433, which is more than double the amount requested so far by second-ranked Tulsa.

Oklahoma schools’ struggles to hire certified teachers come despite significant pay increases since 2018.

In an Oct. 22 tweet, Oklahoma State School Boards Association executive director Shawn Hime wrote that the average Oklahoma teacher salary has now “increased by almost $10,000” and that the Oklahoma Legislature has increased state appropriations to schools by $750 million.

In fact, in many ways Oklahoma schools are flush with more cash than at any time in recent memory.

At the end of the 2020 state budget year, Oklahoma school districts reported carrying over $982 million, an increase of $320.6 million, or 48 percent, over three years.

School carryover at the end of the 2021 state budget year, which concluded on June 30, has not yet been reported, but is expected to be even larger due to a massive infusion of federal COVID-bailout funds to schools.

Some education officials have blamed COVID-19 for the continued struggle to attract teachers, saying many veteran educators have opted to retire due to health concerns.

Retirement did increase significantly this year, with 2,205 Oklahoma teachers retiring in the months preceding the start of the 2021-2022 school year, compared to about 1,600 apiece during the same time periods in 2019 and 2020.

But state officials have also anticipated a significant increase in retirements due in part to a side effect of the pay raises approved in 2018. Because retirement benefits are calculated based in part on a multi-year average salary calculation, working for an extra three years at a significantly higher salary can significantly boost a teacher’s retirement benefits.

A state retirement official noted that fact to lawmakers during a November 2019 legislative study.

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

At that time, according to the Teachers’ Retirement System of Oklahoma, there were 7,590 educators eligible for retirement in 2019 who continued to work. By Dec. 1, 2022, officials estimated that 9,491 individuals would be eligible for retirement.

Members of the State Board of Education were also warned of that reality during their October 2019 meeting. Carolyn Thompson, chief of government affairs for the Oklahoma State Department of Education, told board members that as teachers completed the years of service required to obtain higher retirement benefits, many were expected to leave the profession.

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

Despite those factors, news of schools’ increased reliance on emergency-certified teachers prompted some education officials to call for lawmakers to continue to simply spend more and hope for different results.

In a tweet, Clinton Public Schools Superintendent Tyler Bridges wrote that the emergency certification numbers show that Oklahoma lawmakers need to “continue to invest in our teaching force or we run further risk of hurting our kids education.”

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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