Although there’s still a long way to go in reversing Oklahoma’s troubling teacher shortage, educators say a new law will help school districts fill gaps in the classroom.
Gov. Kevin Stitt approved House Bill 1050 on April 4, increasing the number of days a substitute can work during a school year from 90 to 135. That limit will extend from 100 to 145 for those who hold a lapsed or expiring state teaching certificate or have a bachelor’s level college degree. There still is no limit for substitutes with a valid certificate.
Its passage comes as a welcome relief for school officials overwhelmed by a lack of available substitute teachers.
Jenks Public Schools, for instance, has 221 active substitutes but needs about 100 more to be comfortable. That’s because only a third of those substitutes are able to work on a given day, said Dana Ezell, the district’s chief human resources officer.
“I think like other districts, we are seeing the shortage across the board,” Ezell said. “We just don’t have the substitute pool that we’ve had in the past, and so that is certainly a challenge, especially in the spring time when there’s so many activities and events that teachers need to be absent for. It makes it a real challenge to get enough subs to be able to cover those absences.”
And like other districts, Ezell monitored HB 1050’s journey through the Legislature. She believes the measure gives schools more flexibility by prolonging the availability of each substitute.
However, she said it doesn’t solve the bigger issue, which is that not a lot of people want the low-paying job.
Tulsa Public Schools hosted a news conference last month urging community members to serve their schools by becoming substitutes. TPS typically is unable to cover more than half of teacher absences on a given day.
Devin Fletcher, the district’s chief talent and learning officer, said the substitute bill is a solid first step in combating the shortage due to the benefits of extending the maximum number of allowable teaching days. Making it harder for subs to run out of eligibility during the school year provides some much-needed relief in the search for new hires.
“People who potentially time out can still sub for longer, which means that the number of individuals that you have to find day to day is lower,” Fletcher said. “Is it a silver bullet? No. But I think it will help quite a bit.”
He also hopes the extra 45 shifts will incentivize people who haven’t applied because they feel the current limit is not sustainable.
Another benefit of the increase, according to Union Public Schools Superintendent Kirt Hartzler, is the opportunity to develop deeper bonds between substitutes and students.
“In long-term circumstances, when we’re not able to keep a familiar substitute in front of a class, that can also have an effect on the students in the learning process,” Hartzler said. “Relationships matter, and they matter a lot in terms of quality instruction.”
The superintendent said the measure is a short-term fix to a problem that — at least in part — is a byproduct of the unprecedented teacher shortage affecting Oklahoma schools.
But overall, Hartzler called it a responsible and sensible piece of legislation that will go a long way in alleviating classroom anxiety.
“It’s a small victory in a bigger battle for really making sure that we get more people into the classrooms and, more than anything, convince them education is a great place to make a career in Oklahoma,” he said.
The bill will become effective Nov. 1.