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OKLAHOMA CITY — There’s growing bipartisan enthusiasm for an “outside-the-box” idea that aims to increase the number of qualified teachers in public school classrooms by providing their children access to free college tuition.

The plan would remove the income restriction threshold for certified teachers’ children so that their children would be eligible to participate in the Oklahoma’s Promise scholarship program if a teacher has taught for a certain length of time in public school classrooms.

The Oklahoma Higher Learning Access Program, or Oklahoma’s Promise, allows students to qualify to have their college or CareerTech tuition paid if they meet academic, behavioral and income requirements. The combined income level for a family of four, for instance, must not exceed $60,000 a year.

Outgoing state Superintendent Joy Hofmeister said she’s been backing a similar plan in the state Capitol since 2018 in a bid to shore up the state’s failing teacher pipeline, which has seen an exodus of thousands of certified educators. Hofmeister said there are about 33,000 certified teachers who no longer work in Oklahoma public schools.

While increasing educator pay would be the most immediate way to attract people back to the classroom, Hofmeister believes eliminating the Oklahoma’s Promise income cap for educators’ children would help incentivize the most qualified educators to return and remain and entice college-educated professionals to enter teaching.

“This helps the overall standing that our universities are measured by as well as has the benefit of building a more robust workforce, teacher pipeline workforce. Both. It’s a win-win,” she said.

Because not every teacher will have a college-bound student at the same time, the incentive would probably be easier to bear on the state budget as opposed to an immediate across-the-board $10,000 pay raise, she said.

“If there is going to be another teacher pay raise, legislators should consider factoring in this idea because it would definitely help with retention,” she said.

But previous legislative efforts to remove the cap have faced headwinds in the Legislature.

State Rep. Ronny Johns, R-Ada, who ran a measure that would have expanded such eligibility for certified teachers’ children, saw his bill stall in a House committee last year. He said his plan needed “guardrails” in terms of how long a teacher must teach in order to qualify and if they should be required to teach while their child was attending college.

In addition, he said the State Department of Education wasn’t sure how many children Oklahoma educators have, so state officials struggled to estimate the fiscal impact of such an expansion.

Johns said that although he didn’t refile the bill this session, he is still working on the details.

Johns and his wife are both former teachers and have three children. When they attempted to enroll their oldest daughter in Oklahoma’s Promise, he said they learned they didn’t qualify because they were $50 over the income threshold. The couple ended up taking out loans to pay for their children’s education, which Johns said he’s still paying off.

Jonathan Small, Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs president, suspects there’s been legislative resistance to the idea because there are employee shortages in a variety of industries, and there are concerns that if lawmakers expand access to free tuition to one profession, it could be unfair to another. He said there are also concerns about the financial impact to state coffers along with fast-rising college tuition costs.

But competition is fierce for workers in all sectors, and teachers now have a lot of employment options, so if Oklahoma wants a sufficiently staffed teaching workforce, then lawmakers are going to have to figure out how to offer competitive incentives, Small said.

Small supports expanding Oklahoma’s Promise to educators’ children. He said it’s “another tool in the toolbox” to retain qualified teachers, particularly those who are concerned about their children being strapped with college debt.

“There’s a lot of things that are going to have to be done to think outside the box about the teaching profession in a world where workers are more mobile than they’ve ever been,” Small said. “They have more negotiating power than they’ve ever had. Again, this is all great. And, they have more options available to them than they ever have, so employers in that environment are going to have to be extremely innovative and think outside the box, and typically government has a problem doing that.”

Sandra Cowan, of El Reno, is finishing a multidisciplinary college degree in education using an alternate certification path that allows her to work full-time as a secretary in the instrumental music department and also as the high school testing coordinator in El Reno public schools. A first-generation college student, she plans to work in the classroom after graduating.

Cowan said when she looked to enroll her high school son into Oklahoma’s Promise, she and her husband discovered they were just over the income threshold, so he doesn’t qualify.

She said teachers overall don’t make much money, so generally their spouse has to make more to provide for the family, but that pushes them over the qualifying threshold for Oklahoma’s Promise.

“That would be wonderful if they did something like that for educators’ children,” Cowan said. “That would be a great incentive to keep teachers in the classroom to benefit their children.”

Shawn Hime, executive director of the State School Boards Association, said there should be no income cap for teachers because it doesn’t matter what a teacher’s spouse does. Parents want — and students deserve — a high-quality teacher in the classroom, and this would help ensure that, he said.

He said there have been a few legislative attempts to remove the income cap over the past few sessions, but none have made it into law.

Hime said districts need all the tools possible to recruit and retain high-quality teachers, and expanding Oklahoma’s Promise to educators’ kids would be something different than what other states are doing.

“We know we have a teacher shortage crisis,” Hime said. “And it does us no good to just beat our head against the wall and cry about having a teacher shortage crisis. We have to find solutions in a number of different ways to solve that for the betterment of Oklahoma’s 700,000 public school children.”

Expanding the program would “make a huge difference” for teacher recruitment and retention, said Jami Jackson-Cole, a Duncan public school teacher who runs an Oklahoma education Facebook group that has over 62,000 members.

“That would be a huge thing to attract more teachers to the profession,” she said. “I would have loved to have had my kids’ college paid for.”

Jackson-Cole and her husband, who is also a teacher, made too much combined income for her children to qualify for Oklahoma’s Promise, so they took on considerable student loan debt so that both their children could attend Oklahoma State University.

“It’s just ridiculously expensive right now,” she said of tuition.

Ryan Walters, the new state superintendent, did not return a message seeking comment.

State Rep. Jacob Rosecrants, D-Norman, a former teacher, said lawmakers need to create a package of “outside-the-box ideas” to keep educators in the classroom because Oklahoma’s teaching shortage is “beyond crisis point.”

“The cliff is here,” he said. “And there’s going to be a massive lack of qualified educators teaching our kids if we don’t do something. So, yeah, I think this should be part of a larger package.”

State Rep. John Waldron, D-Tulsa, said the state needs long-term solutions to the teacher shortage. Career educators yield better student outcomes, and one way to ensure there are more of them is to provide additional supports for them and their families, he said.

“It would encourage teachers,” he said. “It would tell teachers that Oklahoma believes in them and that it is a place that they can raise a family on their teacher’s salary, and that it’s OK to stay and take care of the kids in front of them. We would take care of the teachers, and the teachers would take care of our kids.”

Janelle Stecklein covers the Oklahoma Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites. Reach her at jstecklein@cnhinews.com.

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