This is the third of a three-part series appearing this week on the OK Policy Blog that examines the reasons behind Oklahoma’s teacher shortage and what we can do to fix it. You can read part one here and read part two here.
Jennifer Job, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor in the School of Teaching and Curriculum Leadership at Oklahoma State University.
On November 1st, two bills aimed at teacher recruitment for Oklahoma’s schools went into effect. One, HB 1521, allows for a “one-time incentive pay” for new teachers returning for a second year. HB 1521 also permits districts to help pay moving costs for out-of-state hires. SB 20 grants an Oklahoma teaching certificate to any person holding an out-of-state teaching license and five years’ experience teaching in another state. Previously, teachers with out-of-state licenses were required to complete extensive testing to receive an Oklahoma certification.
It is understandable that Oklahoma is making an effort to attract teachers from other states. The state began the 2015-2016 school year with 1,000 fewer teachers despite eliminating 600 positions last year. That means 2.5 percent of Oklahoma classrooms do not have teachers in them. Worse yet, 17.5 percent of teachers in Oklahoma are “unqualified,” meaning they are teaching without a standard certification, according to the 2015 Equitable Access to Excellent Educators Report (“Oklahoma Equity Plan”) submitted to the State Department of Education. This number will certainly increase next year—over 800 emergency certificates (provisional licenses for people who have not completed any teacher preparation or passed any certification tests) have been issued since July 1; for comparison, the number of emergency certificates issued in 2011 was 32. Moreover, Oklahoma universities are not keeping up with the demand; my own research has found that all of Oklahoma’s teacher preparation programs combined graduate about 1,500 new teachers per year.
“Nearly half of Oklahoman students in poverty have teachers who are unqualified, inexperienced, or absent altogether.”
The incentives offered in HB 1521 and SB 20 are steps in the right direction. Inviting teachers into the state who have at least five years’ experience and an established license will help alleviate Oklahoma’s equity problem, and paying for moving costs is a generous offer. However the incentive laws have significant flaws. Most important is the lack of equity—the state allows these incentives but provides no funding, meaning only the wealthiest districts will be able to afford them.
Beyond the equity problem, the incentives are only a stopgap covering at most the first two years of a teacher’s career. Currently, 17 percent of teachers exit the Oklahoma public school system after the first year on the job, according to a recent report by University of Tulsa professor Matthew Hendrick. A small incentive bonus – Oklahoma City offers $500 – is unlikely to change that. This also does nothing to prevent more experienced teachers from leaving for other states or other professions—10 percent of teachers with up to 10 years’ experience exit Oklahoma schools every year as well. These numbers are significantly higher than the neighboring state of Texas, which only loses 8 percent of its teachers a year.
Recently, Dallas Independent School District raised its starting salary to $50,000 a year. Compare this with Oklahoma City’s starting salary of $32,925, and it is clear why Oklahoma has not remained competitive with its surrounding states for teachers. Kansas, Missouri, and Arkansas all have higher average salaries for teachers than Oklahoma, where teachers make only 78 percent of the national average pay. And while our recruitment incentives are a start, many states are doing much more. In Washington, D.C., teachers in low-performing schools may earn up to $100,000 a year. Virginia’s Teachers for Tomorrow program offers college credit and hands-on school experience for high school juniors and seniors willing to choose teaching as their careers. Districts in Texas and North Carolina offer ongoing salary bonuses and training for teachers willing to teach in low-performing schools. In our own state, Midwest City has a program that can serve as a model—many businesses there offer free services to teachers.
Oklahoma needs to stop cutting taxes and start showing a real willingness to commit not just to recruiting excellent teachers, but to keeping them here. The current legislation is little more than a nod to the problem, not a real solution.
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