U.S. News

Oklahoma starts school year short of teachers despite pay raise

TULSA, Okla. (Reuters) - The Oklahoma Board of Education on Thursday approved a record number of emergency teacher certificates to fill a shortfall of qualified faculty that has not eased even as the state enacted its first major pay raise in a decade.

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With the school year already under way in most parts of the state, the board approved 916 emergency certificates to allow educators who are not fully accredited to teach, it said. With the new certificates, the total for the current fiscal year is at 2,153, a record high.

Use of the certificates has grown quickly in recent years. In the 2011-12 year, it issued 32 emergency certificates, data showed.

Oklahoma teachers walked off the job in April, seeking more money for schools devastated by years of education funding cuts and to bolster their salaries, which had ranked among the lowest in the nation.

Graphic - Education funding 2008 thru 2015 :

Graphic - U.S. Teacher Salaries in 2017 :

The strike was part of a wave by teachers in states with some of the lowest per-student spending in the country.

To prevent school closings, the Republican-dominated Oklahoma legislature approved its first tax increase in more than two decades to provide an average pay raise of $6,100 for teachers, which went into effect this month.

Joy Hofmeister, a Republican and state Department of Education superintendent, said the pay raise was a crucial step but more must be done to fix the teacher shortage.

“The challenges facing Oklahoma classrooms cannot be remedied by a one-year fix any more than one time on a treadmill makes you ready for the Olympics,” she said in a social media post.

Oklahoma teachers have been leaving the state for higher wages and even with the raise, salaries elsewhere remained higher in neighboring states.

In May 2017, the annual mean wage for Oklahoma teachers was $41,880, among the lowest in the country, compared with neighbors Texas at $57,830 and Kansas at $50,470, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Republican Governor Mary Fallin, who leaves office in January due to term limits, said this week she considered the pay raise one of her biggest accomplishments.

But teachers and administrators said it did little to alleviate large class sizes, repair decaying school infrastructure or replace dilapidated text books held together with duct tape.

An Oklahoma State School Boards Association survey this month showed the state would start the school year with about 500 teaching vacancies, even with the record number of emergency certified educators.

Reporting by Lenzy Krehbiel-Burton in Tulsa and Jon Herskovitz in Austin, Texas; Writing by Jon Herskovitz; Editing by Richard Chang