Signing bonuses of as much as $50,000 are what Superintendent of Public Instruction Ryan Walters said is needed to attract new and retired teachers to the classroom.
That’s also what makes his new bonus plan a risky policy.
Schools reported more than 1,000 teaching vacancies at the start of the 2022-23 school year and used more than 4,100 emergencycertified teachers to staff classrooms. Emergency certificates allow schools to hire people with at least a bachelor’s degree to fill a teaching position. Often they have no formal training in teaching, though sometimes they are teachers certified in a different subject area.
Walters in April announced the initiative to use $16 million in federal funds to fund sign-on bonuses aimed at drawing teachers to early elementary and special education positions for the upcoming school year.
Bonuses are not for teachers who stayed
Only educators who did not teach last year are eligible. They have to be certified and teach early elementary or special education. Working in a rural or high-poverty district or moving to Oklahoma qualifies a teacher for a larger bonus.
At least 500 teachers have applied so far, Walters said in a public meeting May 25.
In Deer Creek Public Schools, 17 new hires qualify for a bonus under the plan.
“I’m excited about my new teacher coming from California and she’s going to teach third grade. But $50,000 is an awfully big amount for one teacher,” said Deer Creek Superintendent Jason Perez. “I would like to try to attract as many with signing bonuses as possible, and maybe we could have spread that money a little bit.”
Perez said he’s concerned that awarding new or inexperienced educators large bonuses will hurt morale considering longtime educators have stuck it out through many challenges in the past few years.
Matt Riggs, the superintendent at Macomb Public Schools, a small district about an hour southeast of Oklahoma City, echoed some of Perez’s concerns.
“If you’ve been loyal to the school district and you’ve stayed … then somebody else gets to come in and get a bonus, I think it kind of makes you sit up and lament the fact that you’ve stayed,” he said.
‘We’re not a collection agency’
To sign up for the bonuses, applicants commit to teach for five years.
Districts are directed to claw back a prorated amount from teachers who don’t fulfill that commitment. A teacher who leaves after two years would have to pay back three years of bonus money, even if they start at a new school, move out of state or stop teaching altogether.
That’s because some of the money for the program is coming from federal pandemic relief funds, money the state will have to repay if unspent by Sept. 30, 2024.
The state’s guidance also isn’t clear about whether districts must claw back funds from teachers who leave before five years, or how they would collect if a teacher refused or was unable to pay. In one answer, the document states districts are responsible for collecting; in another answer addressing the districts’ costs to collect, it says those costs would be at districts’ discretion if they chose to collect payments.
“That seems like a really tough thing to pull off,” said Perez, the Deer Creek superintendent. “I don’t even know what leverage I would have. It’s not like I can repossess their teaching certificate or their car. I don’t have any of that power.”
Oklahoma law prohibits teacher contracts beyond one year and doesn’t allow districts to withhold teachers’ pay.
Riggs, of Macomb, said while his district could withstand the cost this year, the district’s budget has been so tight in the past that a legal expedition to clawback funds could have broken the bank.
He said that is a risk he’s not interested in signing his district up for.“ That’s not money coming out of our budget…,” Riggs said. “Why in the world would we want to try to recoup that money on behalf of the state? We’re not a collection agency.”
Federal funds, federal regulations
After Walters announced the program, Matt Colwell, who served as the executive director of school success at the state department’s Office of Federal Programs, contacted the U.S. Department of Education to find out whether the program would meet federal regulations and what responsibility the state would have for the teachers who don’t fulfill their five-year commitment.
Colwell said he’s concerned the large stipends will not meet the federal standard of reasonableness, which states are required to consider and provide documentation of to prevent misuse of federal funds.
For example, if a 75-student school district requested federal funds to purchase school buses, one or two might be reasonable but five buses would not, unless it could show the district is so spread out they need to run five routes at once.
Colwell says the department may struggle to justify the bonuses as reasonable because it historically hasn’t provided recruitment incentives over $2,500, and state law caps incentive bonuses at 50% of a teacher’s salary.
If auditors deem the bonuses not reasonable, the state could have to repay the full amount to the federal government with interest, Colwell said. The state could also have to repay funds for teachers who breach the five-year commitment.
Colwell sent those concerns to his supervisor and other top administrators at the department May 17.
“Leaving this program as-is places [the Oklahoma State Department of Education] and Oklahoma taxpayers at an increased risk,” he wrote.
A week later, Walters fired Colwell for forwarding those concerns to the state attorney general and a state representative, according to Colwell and a federal wrongful termination lawsuit he filed against Walters and Matt Langston, the department’s chief policy advisor.
“The whole time, I was trying to do the right thing,” he said. “I was also trying to protect the state Department of Education and trying to protect Superintendent Walters. Like, ‘Hey, don’t do something that could potentially come back to haunt you later, especially around federal funds.’” At the time, the department was late rolling out its accountability system, and Colwell said the U.S. Department of Education was pressing that issue with the state. He feared another red flag.
Oklahoma has been under extra scrutiny following a federal audit of its $40 million Governor’s Emergency Education Relief funds, which found at least $650,000 in misspending under a program intended to help lowincome families with school supplies.
Colwell said funding for the bonus plan is coming from a portion of the American Rescue Plan to address learning loss, and those programs are required to be evidence-based. Colwell questioned whether incentivizing inexperienced educators to fill the most challenging classrooms would meet that requirement.
For instance, pre-K through third-grade teachers who are Oklahoma residents with less than three years of experience are offered $15,000 and those with three to four years of experience can receive $25,000. But there’s no bonus for those with five or more years of experience unless they work in a rural or high-poverty school district, in which case they could receive $50,000.
Other programs avoid problematic clawbacks
Similar programs reward new teachers without clawing back funds.
Participants of Inspired to Teach can earn up to $25,500 over nine years: $1,000 to $2,500 scholarships while in college and $4,000 yearly stipends once they start teaching.
State Rep. Mark Mc-Bride, R-Moore, said one detail he wanted to get right when creating Inspired to Teach was avoiding a need to clawback funds. “It’s a pain and hard to get it done,” McBride said.
Like the sign-on bonuses, Inspired to Teach participants commit to teaching for five years. But if at any point they change course, they don’t have to repay what they have received, according to the state Regents for Higher Education, which administers the program.