Local school leaders say Oklahoma’s chronic teacher shortage shows no signs of easing even as new state-funded teacher raises take effect.
Teacher turnover appears to have slackened for some Tulsa-area school districts but ticked up at others, and the state of Oklahoma is on pace to eclipse last year’s record for emergency certified teachers.
While officials are optimistic about what effect the raises could have, they are still warily eyeing the future, wondering if higher pay will encourage enough people to enter the teaching profession in time to replace “a storm” of retirements.
“The concern for HR directors, not really a question, is looking down the road. Looking at our universities at how many majors we have going into education, it gets a little alarming for us — three years, four years and five years from now,” said Rusty Stecker, head of human resources at Broken Arrow Public Schools.
One of the greatest indicators of the statewide teacher shortage is school districts’ growing reliance on new hires who have not yet completed the state’s requirements for either a traditional or alternative certification.
In the first two months of the new fiscal year, the Oklahoma State Board of Education has already approved 1,237 emergency certifications. By comparison, 1,975 were approved in all of fiscal year 2018.
And many more are coming in the months ahead.
Steffie Corcoran, spokeswoman for the state Department of Education, said the batch of new applicants being processed for approval later in August is on par with August 2017’s group of 574, and there are still a few days remaining for districts to submit additional applications.
The state’s second-largest district, Tulsa Public Schools, has already seen its number of emergency-certified teachers increase 35 percent, from 185 last year to 248, said Devin Fletcher, chief talent and learning officer at TPS.
So far, teacher turnover is trending down for TPS for 2018-19.
As of Aug. 8, the district had lost 501 teachers — with about 13 remaining vacancies — compared to the more than 600 teachers who left after the previous academic year.
Over the past three years, however, TPS has lost nearly half of its teaching corps.
Fletcher said the district’s turnover is “on par” with comparable urban districts and that the emergency certification growth was commensurate with the state. But he didn’t provide examples of those districts with comparable turnover.
He said about 50 percent of TPS’ emergency-certified teachers will have had five weeks of intensive training this summer to better prepare them for the classroom through either Teach For America’s own training program or the local district’s new Tulsa Teacher Corps.
“We are extremely hopeful and committed to being on top of where the state is going to head,” Fletcher said.
Shortage persisting in suburbs, too
Typically sought-after suburban school districts are still reporting that it is nearly impossible to hire for certain teaching vacancies.
The state’s sixth-largest school district, Broken Arrow Public Schools, still had 11 vacancies as of Aug. 7. Areas of need included specialized positions such as secondary-level science and mathematics as well as special education, which is an area of need across the state.
Turnover has picked up at Broken Arrow. The school district lost about 130 teachers in 2016-17 and this year lost 184 teachers, meaning turnover among its 1,200 teachers rose from about 11 percent to 15 percent.
Stecker, head of human resources for the district, attributed the increase to a spate of retirements, others leaving the teaching profession and some leaving the state.
He said teachers are still attracted to Broken Arrow because of the city and the district’s amenities, making his job easy. But what Stecker is concerned about is not the here and now, but the future.
“I definitely think with House Bill 1023XX it’s going to make our industry definitely more attractive to students at the university going into the education sector,” said Stecker. “I still think that we have a long ways to go. I think there needs to be more legislation — operating dollars as well as teacher salary to make sure that … down the road that we’re not in a really bad position compared to what it could be.”
Union Public Schools officials said they are “alarmed” at the current applicant shortage for vacancies in key areas. As of Monday, the district of nearly 16,000 students still had eight unfilled teaching vacancies — two in elementary schools and six at the secondary-school level.
“There are just not enough math, science and special education teachers to go around,” said district spokesman Chris Payne. “While we are glad for the pay raise, I am convinced it’s going to take our state three to five years to climb out of the hole we’ve created. It may sound like old news, but it’s scaring us. Union has never had this much difficulty filling openings.”
Collinsville Superintendent Lance West said this year’s teacher hiring season is going “fairly well” with one exception — a newly added special education position for one elementary school.
“We were not able to fill it. To be honest, it was probably our fault in waiting until the last minute to decide to open this up,” West said.
West said Oklahoma’s newly implemented teacher raises, which took effect Aug. 1, have prompted several Collinsville teachers to defer retirement by at least three years so that they can increase their retirement pay.
He has also seen a number of former teachers in the area of the northside suburb express interest in returning to the profession because of the raises and he added: “I know the rest of our staff is very appreciative and, if for no other reason, it has helped with morale.”
Bartlesville Public Schools reported a 10 percent faculty turnover, which Superintendent Chuck McCauley called an improvement over recent years.
After the Legislature’s passage of statewide teacher raises, Bartlesville received some interest from teachers who previously left for bordering states, but none of that interest materialized into actual hires.
Still, McCauley said, “I believe we dodged a bullet once we received clarification on the teacher pay raise. More teachers would have left the profession or state if the raise hadn’t been fully funded at the beginning of the year.”