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After Okla. Historic Pay Raise, Morale Is Up—But Teacher Shortage Persists

Oklahoma-teachers-article.jpg

This spring, Oklahoma teachers walked out of their classrooms for nine days, protesting low salaries, crumbling classrooms, and cuts to school spending. They walked out despite the state legislature passing an average $6,100 pay raise—the largest in state history, although it fell short of teachers' demands.

Now, four months later, teacher morale across the state has improved, but there have been no immediate effects on Oklahoma's teacher shortage, according to a new survey from the Oklahoma State School Boards Association

The survey found that Oklahoma schools are starting the new academic year with nearly 500 teaching vacancies. More than half of the superintendents who responded to the survey found that teacher hiring is worse this year compared to last year.

Increasingly over the years, Oklahoma schools have been relying on emergency-certified teachers, who typically don't have any classroom experience or training. Just this summer, the Oklahoma state board of education has approved 1,237 emergency certifications—on track to surpass last year's record of nearly 2,000. These certifications allow people without a teaching certificate to teach for one year, or allow a certified teacher to teach a new subject before getting recertified. 

While many district leaders said that the pay raise helped them convince some teachers who were contemplating retirement to stay in the classroom, it didn't have a major impact on either recruitment or retention. That might be because of teachers' worries about an attempt to ask voters to repeal the tax hikes that funded the teacher pay raise. An anti-tax group was seeking to put the question of tax increases on the November ballot, but it abandoned its effort in July after an unfavorable Oklahoma Supreme Court ruling. 

"The veto referendum effort left teachers with too much doubt about whether the raise was real," said Shawn Hime, the OSSBA executive director, in a statement. "That missed opportunity meant many teachers made choices to leave the state or pursue other professions."

Districts report that special education teaching positions—which are not eligible for emergency certification—are the most difficult to fill, followed by high school science and math, elementary, and middle school math and science teaching positions. In addition to relying on emergency-certified teachers, 43 percent of districts anticipate bringing retired teachers back into the classroom this school year, and 35 percent plan to hire adjunct instructors, who teach on a part-time basis. 

However, there are some bright spots for school districts: Far fewer school systems plan to increase class sizes this school year, and more than 100 school districts reported adding at least one teaching position since last school year. The Oklahoma state legislature also boosted funding for public schools in response to the walkout. 

The Oklahoma work stoppage ended with mixed emotions this spring: Many teachers were frustrated with the resolution of the walkout, which was called off by the state teachers' union after days of legislative inaction. Teachers had initially asked for a $10,000 pay raise over three years. But before this year, Oklahoma teachers hadn't received a pay raise in 10 years. They are among the lowest paid in the nation.  

"The pay raise has been both positive and a step in the right direction," said Janet Dunlop, the superintendent of Broken Arrow schools, located outside of Tulsa, according to the survey. "It's boosting morale, but it is definitely not a fix to a very deep problem."

Image: Educator Benita Boone, right, rallies with other teachers during a protest on April 18 in Oklahoma City. —Sue Ogrocki/AP-File

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