Joy Hofmeister

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister talks Dec. 12, 2016, to attendees at a town hall in Muskogee.

OKLAHOMA CITY — Oklahoma’s top education official said she plans to ask lawmakers to spend $310 million to give every teacher a $5,000 pay raise, but one state lawmaker said that although one is warranted, he doesn’t know if that amount is fiscally feasible.

Joy Hofmeister, the state’s superintendent of public instruction, said in a news release Monday that the raise will be part of the State Department of Education’s budget request for the upcoming legislative session. She said the investment is vital to the state’s ability to “build a sustainable teacher workforce necessary for providing the high-quality education Oklahoma students need and deserve,” particularly in the midst of an unprecedented and worsening teacher shortage.

She said even as Oklahoma lawmakers have significantly raised teacher pay in recent years, so did neighboring states. Oklahoma now ranks fourth in the region with an average salary of $54,096. It’s behind Colorado ($57,706), Texas ($57,090) and New Mexico ($54,256). She also noted that New Mexico’s governor recently signed legislation that will soon boost teacher pay by an additional $10,000 a year.

“It is imperative we look for long-term solutions to show that Oklahoma values and respects its teachers,” Hofmeister said, noting that the state has 52,850 certified teachers.

Hofmeister’s call comes just days after the Oklahoma State School Boards Association reported a record 1,019 teaching vacancies, with districts on pace to employ record numbers of emergency certified teachers and adjunct instructors.

The group said it has conducted the survey for nine years, and nearly 70% of 328 district administrators surveyed said the teacher hiring market is worse than a year ago.

Districts reported that they’re already trying to incentivize employees by offering free or low-cost daycare, before- and after-school programs, increased benefits, tuition reimbursement, housing incentives, additional paid professional development opportunities, classroom grants through private partnerships and financial assistance for certification tests.

Districts received almost no new state funding for the current budget year, and the survey found that many are relying on temporary federal relief funds to help with recruitment and retention.

The survey also found that 25% of districts increased teacher compensation using salary increases or retention or recruitment stipends. About 60% of districts increased pay for support personnel.

In a statement announcing the survey results, Shawn Hime, the group’s executive director, said now is the time to make “a bold, unprecedented commitment” to ensuring every Oklahoma student has a high-quality teacher that has the training and resources necessary to help every student succeed.

“Investing in education is the best form of economic development,” he said. “Our students deserve it. and it’s the best strategy to shore up the teacher pipeline by retaining the teachers who are in today’s classrooms while making teaching an attractive profession for high school, college students and those interested in changing careers to consider.”

Oklahoma’s last official pay raises were in 2018, when lawmakers passed a $6,100 raise just ahead of a threatened teacher walkout, and in 2019, when teachers received an additional increase averaging $1,220, the State Department of Education said.

State Sen. Dewayne Pemberton, R-Muskogee, a retired educator who chairs a key education budget subcommittee, said there’s no doubt that teachers need a raise, but how much is the question.

He said he isn’t sure whether $5,000 is fiscally feasible or the right number because “that’s a tremendous amount of money.”

“I don’t know whether $5,000 is realistic or not, but I do know that it’s about time for us to look at a teacher pay raise,” Pemberton said.

Pemberton said the nation’s economy is still doing pretty well, but with inflation, nobody knows when the country is going to hit “the down slump.”

He said a number of things are deterring teachers from working in Oklahoma classrooms, including pay. A new law is slated to take effect that will require districts to try to pinpoint why teachers are resigning or leaving the classroom.

Pemberton said pay is deterring people from pursuing education careers because college graduates can make a lot more money starting out in other professions.

“If we’re going to be serious about education and trying to make sure that we show people that we appreciate them and that teachers are appreciated, we need to find a way to compensate them to the point where they feel good about themselves and the jobs that they do in the classroom,” Pemberton said.

Katherine Bishop, president of the Oklahoma Education Association, said Hofmeister’s plan is a “great step in the right direction,” and the state needs both the State Department of Education and the Legislature “to take bold steps to start attracting and retaining teachers in our classrooms.”

Bishop said there’s a nationwide teacher shortage, but Oklahoma has had one longer than any other surrounding state.

She said the state has more than $1 billion in savings, and lawmakers were willing to set aside nearly $700 million in a failed effort to lure a Panasonic battery factory to create 4,000 jobs.

“Oklahoma needs to start taking a look at what we have, and our monies that we have,” she said. “We have never had more money in our state’s history to spend and more frustration on where to spend it. This is a workforce that needs to be invested in, and it’s time to start that investment because our students’ future starts right now. We can’t wait. They can’t wait. Our kids can’t wait any longer.”

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