Hundreds of educators have signed up for a new bonus program. Certified teachers had to pledge to work five years in an Oklahoma school to qualify for a signing bonus of $15,000 to $50,000. (Getty Images) (This image cannot be republished unless you have a subscription to Getty.)
Hundreds of teachers from across nearly 200 school districts have joined a signing bonus program designed to attract new teachers into Oklahoma classrooms, state education officials said.
The Oklahoma State Department of Education expects to make bonus payments ranging from $15,000 to $50,000 to 533 teachers by Oct. 12, agency spokesperson Dan Isett said.
State Superintendent Ryan Walters first announced the signing bonus program in April in a bid to attract certified early elementary and special education teachers who weren’t working in Oklahoma classrooms last year.
“Oklahoma has struggled to recruit and maintain quality teachers in the state, so (Superintendent) Walters is pleased that this program will help keep best and brightest teachers throughout Oklahoma and the country teaching right here,” Isett said.
More than 800 people applied for the program, and 533 qualified, according to the department. It did not specify which districts are participating.
The state agency has added an extra $2 million to the budget dedicated to the signing bonuses. It initially set aside $16 million, including $8 million from COVID-19 relief funds and $8 million from federal funds meant to help students with disabilities.
Targeting critical-shortage areas in the education workforce, the bonuses attracted 352 teachers for pre-K through third grade and 168 certified to work with students with special needs, according to the state agency.
Extra funds were available to those who took jobs in rural or high-poverty schools. The largest bonuses of $50,000 will go to teachers with five or more years of experience working in those locations or in special education.
Seventy-four teachers who moved to Oklahoma from out of state also qualified for $25,000 to $50,000.
All of the candidates had to pledge to work five years in an Oklahoma school. The state Department of Education will recoup funds on a prorated basis from those who don’t fulfill their five-year commitment, according to new guidance from the agency.
Initially, the state agency had said school districts were responsible for collecting teachers’ repayments, a prospect that gave school leaders pause.
“What, are we going to hire some guy named Guido to track these people down and collect the money?” Wagoner Public Schools Superintendent Randy Harris said. “We weren’t a big fan of that.”
Wagoner did not have any teachers involved in the program, Harris said.
Oklahoma City Public Schools also had reservations about the role of school districts in the signing bonus plan, but the Department of Education alleviated those worries with updated guidance it released last month, said Brad Herzer, assistant superintendent of human resources, safety and security at OKCPS.
Seven teachers in the Oklahoma City district, both for early childhood and special education, met the criteria for a bonus. Four of them qualified for the full $50,000 and three for $20,000.
“We want to give teachers as much money as we’re able to get in their hands,” Herzer said. “We just had a lot of questions upfront, but once those were answered we were all on board.”
The signing bonus concept met some scrutiny from a former Department of Education employee who has since been fired from the agency.
Matthew Colwell was fired in May after he alerted the Attorney General’s Office and a state representative of his concerns about the program’s legality.
Colwell later filed a wrongful termination lawsuit against the department.
He said he worried whether such large bonuses would meet the standard of “reasonable” use of state and federal funds. He also noted a state law that requires incentive pay plans to cost less than 50% of a teacher’s salary, among other concerns.
The Attorney General’s Office on Wednesday declined to confirm whether it is investigating Colwell’s claim.
The latest adjustments to the program seem to be an improvement, Colwell said, especially restructuring the payments to take place exclusively between the state and the teachers, with districts no longer in between.
“I think it’s a little bit scary that you’re sort of building the plane while you’re flying it,” Colwell said. “Instead of the deliberate, ‘Let’s figure out how to do this before we start rolling it out,’ which was kind of my concern from the beginning.”
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CORRECTION: 533 teachers qualified for a new sign on bonus program. The number was incorrectly reported in a Oklahoma Voice story on Thursday.
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