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Big bonuses, bigger risks: Oklahoma’s new teacher sign-on bonus program raises concern

Sean Rayford

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 emergency certified 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.”

Superintendent Jason Perez of Deer Creek Public Schools
Grand Life Photo
Superintendent Jason Perez of Deer Creek Public Schools

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 clawback 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 clawback 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.

Suing former employees for leaving their district is not only a daunting thought, it can be expensive.

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.

Superintendent Matt Riggs of Macomb Public Schools
Beth Wallis
StateImpact Oklahoma
Superintendent Matt Riggs of Macomb Public Schools

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 low-income families with school supplies.

Former State Department employee Matt Colwell
Courtesy of Matt Colwell
Former State Department employee Matt Colwell

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 McBride, 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 teach 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.

At North Carolina’s Guilford County Schools, a clawback mechanism was in place for the district’s previous sign-on bonus program. Alan Hooker, the director of recruiting for the district’s human resources department, said it wasn’t a good policy.

The district of 70,000 students switched to a different program, Better Together. Teachers are eligible to receive up to $20,000 with payouts in installments. Depending on the bonus type, teachers are required to commit to the district for two or three years.

“If something were to happen that was beyond their control and they have to leave us, they won’t have to pay back this exorbitant amount of money, to put them in another predicament,” Hooker said.

State Department of Education spokesman Justin Holcomb said Oklahoma’s program wasn’t set up in installments because it is a true signing bonus and the agency wanted eligible teachers to receive the bonus up front.

Rocky rollout leaves leaders with questions

Research suggests signing bonuses improve teacher retention, and Oklahoma’s teacher shortage underscores the importance of getting the program right.

But district leaders said the continued lack of guidance or value of input from stakeholders is frustrating. It’s an issue that’s become an ongoing theme for the Walters administration. In a recent survey by StateImpact Oklahoma, 150 of 190 respondents said they hadn’t spent any time directly interacting with Walters, who took office in January.

Asked if superintendents, educators or policy experts had any involvement in designing the program, Holcomb responded:

“The stakeholders are the tax paying people of Oklahoma. Ultimately, this administration’s actions and decisions are derived from their input and the needs of their children,” the statement said. After asking for more clarity, a second statement was sent: “Superintendent Walters speaks to superintendents, educators and policy experts on a daily basis. But the ultimate stakeholders are the people of Oklahoma.”

Deer Creek’s Perez said the program rollout probably would have gone smoother if the department first collected input from district leaders. Perez’s district informed new hires who were eligible for the program, and several signed up.The teachers began asking Perez whether they will get the bonus and when, and he didn’t know how to answer.

“When you’re talking about dealing with people, especially new people to your district, they want to feel secure,” Perez said. “They want to know that they’ve got strong leadership that has their back, that’s going to give them good guidance. And when your only answer is ‘I don’t really know,’ that doesn’t really instill a lot of confidence.”

Holcomb said the department is reviewing applications and will reach out to teachers and their districts in the coming weeks. He expects bonus dollars to be distributed near the start of the school year.

The Education Department has provided a seven-page FAQ about the plan, but district leaders say they still have unanswered questions and cannot get the department to respond.

This story was reported in partnership with Oklahoma Watch education reporter Jennifer Palmer.

StateImpact Oklahoma is a partnership of Oklahoma’s public radio stations which relies on contributions from readers and listeners to fulfill its mission of public service to Oklahoma and beyond. Donate online.

Beth reports on education topics for StateImpact Oklahoma.
StateImpact Oklahoma reports on education, health, environment, and the intersection of government and everyday Oklahomans. It's a reporting project and collaboration of KGOU, KOSU, KWGS and KCCU, with broadcasts heard on NPR Member stations.
Oklahoma Watch is a non-profit organization that produces in-depth and investigative journalism on important public-policy issues facing the state. Oklahoma Watch is non-partisan and strives to be balanced, fair, accurate and comprehensive. The reporting project collaborates on occasion with other news outlets. Topics of particular interest include poverty, education, health care, the young and the old, and the disadvantaged.
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