Oklahoma lawmaker wants pandemic relief money allocated to teacher bonuses

(The Center Square) – Oklahoma still has more than a billion dollars of pandemic relief money meant for education unallocated. One lawmaker said he’d like to see some of it used for teacher relocation and retention bonuses.

The state got $2.3 billion in federal pandemic relief money from the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund (ESSER). Approximately $1.3 billion of it has yet to be used, according to House Education Budget Chairman Rep. Mark McBride, R-Moore.

McBride said this week the State Department of Education should take some of that money and offer $4,000 relocation bonuses for public school teachers who move to Oklahoma and $5,000 retention bonuses for existing teachers who decide to stay.

“Teacher shortages are one of the most pressing, immediate education challenges in Oklahoma and across the country,” McBride said. “Bonuses are a powerful tool to attract and retain teachers amid this national teacher shortage. Money talks, and there is a lot of school money available in Oklahoma right now. Let’s use it to fill this shortage and get our school children more teachers.”

The Department of Education did not immediately respond to requests for specifics on what the teacher shortage looks like in Oklahoma.

Several bills have been passed in recent years to address the shortage including House Bill 3564, which gives scholarships to students pursuing teaching degrees, and House Bill 4388, which authorized pay raises of $3,000 to $10,000 for teachers.

However, McBride said those bills provide long-term solutions to the teacher pipeline and do not give enough of a boost now.

“Long term, Oklahoma has a good foundation in place. Short term, Oklahoma needs bold solutions like these bonuses,” he said.

He gave the example of his daughter who used to work as a teacher in Oklahoma but relocated to Las Vegas where the Clark County School District offers $4,000 relocation bonuses.

“She taught public school here, but Oklahoma lost her to Nevada because of money,” McBride said. “Bright, young teachers like her will keep moving if schools don’t get these bonuses in place soon.”

Some Oklahoma school districts are already using bonuses to attract and retain teachers. Edmond Public Schools offered a $1,000 bonus to new or existing teachers who chose to return for the 2022-2023 school year, according to McBride.

ESSER funds are handled by the Department of Education and local school districts, not the Legislature.