In the 2018 legislative session, lawmakers passed some of the biggest tax increases in Oklahoma history, saying the additional taxes were needed to boost teacher pay and increase the number of educators in public schools.
Lawmakers were informed Monday that plan may have had only a temporary impact, and a significant decline in teacher numbers may begin next year.
At the same time, student performance on reading is getting worse, despite the massive infusion of taxpayer funding since 2018.
Lawmakers approved an average teacher pay raise of $6,100 in 2018, and then added another $1,200 in 2019. Because a teacher’s retirement benefit is based on the last three years of income, state Superintendent of Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister said many teachers may now be poised to leave the profession.
“This school year represents the third year since the $6,100 pay raise was first initiated and passed by this body for our teachers,” Hofmeister said. “Teachers who are eligible to retire will have gained the maximum retirement benefit from that first pay raise. As a result, we may see an increase in retirements this year, and perhaps even more next year when it will be a three-year mark from that second pay raise.”
Hofmeister told members of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Education that there are 4,503 teachers in Oklahoma who are retirement-eligible, based on what she called a “conservative” estimate.
“That means more than 10 percent of our teaching core could retire within the next two years,” Hofmeister said.
Hofmeister told lawmakers that officials believe more than 50 percent of both first- and second-grade students are not on track to read at grade level by the end of this year.
If Hofmeister’s estimate is close to accurate, it means all gains generated in the number of Oklahoma teachers since the tax increases were enacted may soon be wiped out and the trajectory reversed.
For the current, 2020-2021 school year, there are 42,859 teachers employed by Oklahoma public schools, according to the Oklahoma State Department of Education figures. That’s an increase of 1,554 teachers compared to the 2017-2018 school year, the last year prior to the teacher pay raises.
In addition, emergency-certified teachers numerically account for the entire margin of increase in the profession in Oklahoma schools. During the first six months of the current state budget year, 1,966 educators requested approval of emergency teaching certificates.
At the same time, academic achievement is headed in the wrong direction in Oklahoma schools, despite huge increases in state education spending since 2018, particularly in reading.
Hofmeister told lawmakers that officials believe more than 50 percent of both first- and second-grade students are not on track to read at grade level by the end of this year. More than 45 percent of third-grade students are similarly below grade level, and nearly 40 percent of kindergarten students are believed to be behind in reading progress.
Those figures are significantly worse than in prior years.
“We know what happened in the first part of the school year, and you can see the need is so much more pronounced than it was last year,” Hofmeister said.
Hofmeister said the COVID-19 shutdown of schools is a major factor in the decline, but also said the screening process to identify struggling students has been improved. All public schools were closed last spring, and many large districts have never reopened for full-time, in-person instruction this year.
“We are approaching, this year and next, the greatest challenge in public education due to the pandemic, of course, in unfinished learning and learning loss,” Hofmeister said.
She said state officials plan to conduct state testing of Oklahoma students in various academic subjects this spring, as mandated by both state and federal law. That testing was suspended last year amidst COVID-19 closures of all schools.
“It’s been 24 months since we have had any way to know where our children are from a state level,” Hofmeister said.