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State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister: 'Oklahoma schools are in a much better place'

(KOKH)

It was a school year that saw nearly 2,000 emergency certified teachers, along with growing class sizes and outdated books and equipment.

Oklahoma was in a crisis that boiled over to the historic teacher walkout.

“What we saw occur was something that can only be measured in the empowerment that those who support public education now feel,” said State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister.

She believes the walkout put a face on the educational crisis and connected those that work at the capitol with those they are there working for all while showing the overwhelming support for public education in Oklahoma.

“Oklahoma schools are in a much better place,” Hofmeister told FOX 25, “But we are still not where we need to be. We won't be until we have teachers in every classroom and have students with the resources they need in every school.”

Even with the pay raise passed last session, emergency certified teachers are still a concern. There are more than 1,200 applications so far, this year. That means there are more than 1,200 openings that couldn't be filled with someone who went to school to be a teacher. That number of emergency teachers just gets Oklahoma to a break-even point; it does nothing to address overcrowded classrooms that have become routine as student populations have outpaced the ability to hire more teachers.

“I think no single stroke of a governor's pen can reverse the eroded funding to public education that's occurred over the last decade,” Hofmeister said.

However, there is hope that the course is changing. Perhaps the biggest sign of this change can be seen in the state’s education standards.

Just a few years ago the state standards were rated among the worst in the country. This summer the new standards implemented during Hofmeister’s first term were given an "A" rating and named 17th best in the nation.

Still though, it is becoming clear Oklahoma’s educational crisis is a symptom of much larger underlying problems. During a recent seven city training tour put on by the Department of Education, teachers flocked to lectures on how to teach children who experience trauma.

Schools, are coping with the effects of poverty, over incarceration and cuts to mental health. Classrooms today simply are not the same as they were a generation ago.

“There are no bumper sticker solutions and it is important that we do not approach education as a one size fits all approach,” Hofmeister said.

While teacher pay addressed one area where Oklahoma was lacking, Hofmeister said there are still areas of funding that need to be addressed.

“We've addressed one big area, which is an important first step, but it is not going to address the respect and resources teachers need to stay in Oklahoma,” Hofmeister said.

While state did provide an additional $33 million for textbook replacement, the money for textbooks has not been provided for some time. And when divided out, it's not enough to buy just one textbook for every student in Oklahoma.

Hofmeister hopes the teacher walkout forces Oklahoma lawmakers to address education issues before the next crisis.

“We stop chasing problems and we begin with a real clear identified quantified list of priorities ... that directly impact students,” Hofmeister said.

Already on the horizon is the battle over class sizes. As funding levels improve schools may soon lose the waivers that allow them to bypass the state law that requires smaller class sizes.

“Right now even if they wanted to, or even if it was mandated, there wouldn't be enough teachers because of the shortage,” Hofmeister said of the potential of restoring class size restrictions.

Hofmeister said she wants to assure teachers that their raise is here to stay, but acknowledges there is still hesitation for those considering staying or entering the profession.

“Keeping people in the profession is going to be a top priority here on out.”

“It is about respecting the needs of educators as they have worked tirelessly, quietly for years, but their voices have been raised they aren't going to stop telling the stories of the children in their classrooms and that's important advocacy for kids.”

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