State government questioned as Edmond Public Schools face teacher shortage

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As Oklahoma teacher salaries decline and education funding decreases, the Edmond Public School District announced last week it is facing a teacher shortage.

The number of applications received annually by the district has gradually decreased from 2,000 to 1,000, Superintendent Bret Towne said. Among 260 new hires made by Edmond Public Schools this past summer, 20 were emergency certified teachers who lack a teaching certificate. One thousand emergency certifications have been granted statewide over the past year.

Assistant Professor of Education Elayne Bowman said the number of emergency certified teachers in the state is concerning, because they are not properly trained in how to handle students. Bowman spent 28 years in the classroom before coming to teach at Oklahoma Christian University three years ago.

“Someone who may have been checking at Wal-Mart last week is now in the classroom without that background in human relations and classroom management,” Bowman said. “They may know the content they’re teaching, but there’s a lot more to teaching than content. Our children are going to hurt.”

Christy Watson, director of communications for the Oklahoma State School Board Association, said Oklahoma is struggling to hire and retain well-qualified teachers because of the higher salaries and smaller class sizes available in surrounding states. The average annual salary for a high school teacher in Oklahoma is the lowest in the U.S. at $42,460. In neighboring Texas, high school teachers, on average, earn $13,000 more per year.

“A couple that Towne mentioned in his report left for Texas this summer and immediately got $20,000 per year pay raises,” Watson said. “You can’t blame teachers who need to support their families for going where the pay is better. Edmond is one of the higher paying districts in Oklahoma already, and even they can’t compete.”

According to Bowman, around 90 percent of Oklahoma Christian’s secondary education graduates have chosen to pursue teaching careers outside of Oklahoma. Bowman said the current education environment in Oklahoma has made it increasingly difficult to give graduates a reason to stay.

“I know teachers in Oklahoma are facing crowded classrooms and a lack of resources,” Bowman said. “I know with their income, they won’t be able to buy a house. They may not even be able to pay rent in a high-income area unless there is someone in the house making more money than them.”

State Question 779 was added to the Oklahoma voting ballot November 2016 as a possible solution to low education funding. The proposed legislation would have generated around $615 million dollars per year in revenue earmarked for teacher pay raises and other educational improvements. It was struck down by 59 percent of Oklahoma voters.

Out of 513 school districts in Oklahoma, 96 have shortened the school week to four days and cut elective classes in response to severe budget cuts. Watson said these cuts will continue and children will suffer if Oklahoma lawmakers do not find a way to increase education funding.

“We’re not producing enough teachers, and that will continue to get worse,” Watson said. “Class sizes will continue to increase, and districts will have fewer course opportunities for students. None of those outcomes are good for kids.”

Some education activists in Oklahoma have criticized state lawmakers for granting oil and natural gas companies substantial tax breaks, which they say has taken money away from education. In 2014, Gov. Mary Fallin signed into law a bill granting a three-year tax reduction, from seven percent to two percent, on both horizontal and vertical drilling. As oil prices have dropped and energy corporations have taken advantage of these tax breaks over the past three years, the amount of state revenue available for education has declined steadily.

Bowman said there must be a balance between making Oklahoma business-friendly and generating enough revenue for education.

“If you raise that taxation rate too much, then we’re going to lose an industry that makes our state so successful,” Bowman said. “But somehow there has to be a rebalancing. Education has to be a top priority in Oklahoma.”

Senior education major Seth Howard said those opposed to raising teacher salaries are often unaware of  the time teachers commitment outside the classroom. According to Howard, teachers often bring their work home and continue planning over the summer.

“It’s not as simple as saying you work 8-3 and then you’re done for the day,” Howard said. “Most teachers I know will work 7:00-4:30 at the school, and then spend 2-3 hours at home every night grading papers and writing lesson plans.”

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