Opinion: Walters makes good on his promise to draw more teachers to Oklahoma’s public schools

The Legislature can seal the deal with fully funded state programs that help a broad swath of educators

September 22, 2023 5:29 am

Supporters of state Superintendent Ryan Walters hold signs outside the Oklahoma State Department of Education building before an August meeting of the State Board of Education. (Photo by Brent Fuchs/For Oklahoma Voice)

OKLAHOMA CITY — A big thumb’s up to Oklahoma’s state superintendent for actually implementing what appears to be a successful program aimed at alleviating one of public school’s biggest challenges — experienced teacher shortages.

In April, Ryan Walters unveiled a signing bonus program to bring qualified, certified, early elementary and special education teachers back into the Oklahoma schools or to woo them away from other states.

Earlier this month, the state Department of Education released the details of its recruitment program. The agency told reporter Nuria Martinez-Keel that 533 teachers across 200 districts qualified for the program, which pays bonuses ranging from $15,000 to $50,000 over five years.

That’s excellent news.

While 500 educators doesn’t solve Oklahoma’s ongoing shortage, it helps a little.

For several years now, Oklahoma has been grappling with teacher shortages. During the last school year, the state had a record number of emergency certified teachers — over 4,400. And, as KOSU also reported, there was a 1,400% increase in adjunct educators. Those are teachers who don’t need certification or even a college degree. 

Lawmakers have taken steps to increase pay, but efforts so far only narrow the existing gap with neighboring states. National wage data also found that Oklahoma teachers generally receive 30% less than college-educated workers with similar jobs.  

Legislators have also focused their attention on incentivizing students to enter the profession but have acknowledged that there aren’t a lot of programs in place to retain those already in our classrooms. 

Walters, a former Oklahoma public school teacher, recognized the void, and launched his own effort that required no local funding.

When Walters first announced the program, it faced considerable skepticism. 

He didn’t give lawmakers a preview, and as Martinez-Keel recently reported, there are still questions about how he would fund the $18 million one-time program. 

Walters plans to use COVID-19 relief money, as well as $8 million in federal funding meant to serve students with disabilities. 

More than 800 educators applied for the program, but only 533 qualified. 

That clearly indicates there’s interest in an expansion of the program if the Legislature has the appetite to consider permanently funding something similar.

Oklahoma needs more retention programs that target a broad swath of experienced teachers — not just a few of the brightest working within a district. Good, experienced teachers are important to improve academic outcomes.

Programs that are fully funded by the state and don’t call for matching local dollars are also helpful.

Ryan Walters’ first nine months in office have been marred by inflammatory rhetoric, outlandish antics and controversy.

This seems to be the first really productive thing he’s done to fulfill the promises he made to voters to take concrete action and improve education outcomes.

It’s a nice change of pace.

Hopefully, this is just the beginning.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Janelle Stecklein
Janelle Stecklein

Janelle Stecklein is editor of Oklahoma Voice. An award-winning journalist, Stecklein has been covering Oklahoma government and politics since moving to the state in 2014.