Business growth, declining unemployment and a statewide teacher pay raise were among the achievements Gov. Mary Fallin highlighted Tuesday in what likely was her final formal address as governor to Tulsa business leaders.
“Our business climate is doing much, much better ... our economy is healthier, and it is diversified,” Fallin told a packed Cox Business Center banquet hall at the Tulsa Regional Chamber’s annual State of the State luncheon.
As outgoing governor, Fallin talked about how far the state has come in a variety of areas since she took office in 2011, including what she believes have been her biggest accomplishments.
The teacher pay raise was “one of our top priorities,” she said.
“There were lots of debates, some bills passed, some bills failed. ... But the great news is after a lot of hard work this year, we have passed the largest teacher pay raise in state history.”
Fallin spent the bulk of her time talking about the state’s economy. She said believes she’s leaving the state on good economic footing going forward.
For example, the state unemployment rate — at 6.2 percent when she took office in January 2011 — is now at 3.8 percent, she said.
“It’s one of the lowest in the nation and something that I think we can all cheer for because it means jobs and opportunities and that things are more stable,” Fallin said.
She also mentioned how two income tax cuts since 2011 have allowed “more families to keep their hard-earned money in their pockets.”
“It’s one of the great benefits of living in Oklahoma,” which also has one of the lowest costs of living in the nation, she said.
New and expanding businesses have been a focus during her tenure, she said. State Department of Commerce-led business deals have yielded 508 new or expanding business developments, she said, with northeast Oklahoma leading the way, representing more of those than any other area of the state.
“We like to call those ‘wins,’” she said.
Additionally, Fallin said, many of those deals involved foreign companies, which accounted for 16 percent of new jobs statewide.
Growth is occurring in existing industries, including aerospace and defense, even as new ones are emerging, Fallin said. Of the latter, she mentioned two drone manufacturing firms that the state was successful in recruiting just recently.
“This is a glimpse of how we are diversifying our economy beyond energy,” although energy will remain an important part of it, she said.
Among other advances, “giant steps forward” have been taken toward criminal justice reform, Fallin said, with multiple bills passed that should help the curb the state’s nationally leading incarceration rate for both men and women.
Measures she cited included the Tulsa-based Pay for Success program, specifically aimed at reducing female incarceration.
“We should start seeing, slowly but surely, a decrease in people we are sending to prison,” Fallin said.
On the teacher raises, Fallin again praised the Legislature.
“It took a lot of cooperation, with our legislators passing very courageous votes,” she said.
By moving the state from 49th to 29th nationally in teacher pay, “it will help keep our good, quality teachers in Oklahoma.”
Fallin concluded by reaffirming her stance that government doesn’t create jobs, but plays a big role by “creating the right kinds of policies and initiatives, the workforce and education systems.”
She said, “Those are all target investments that we’ve made over the last eight years that I’ve had the opportunity to be involved — to create new jobs ... to reform a lot of our systems, and to be able to put Oklahoma on a more stable path forward.”
Oklahoma is poised to break last year’s record-setting number of emergency certifications for nonaccredited teachers in just three months.
Officials at the Oklahoma State Department of Education said about 915 more emergency certifications are expected to be approved when the Oklahoma State Board of Education meets this week.
In the first two months of hiring for the 2018-19 academic year, the state board already approved 1,237 emergency certifications. In all 12 months of 2017-18, 1,975 were approved.
In 2011-12, Oklahoma issued just 32 emergency teaching certificates in a single year.
This growing reliance by school districts on new hires who have not yet completed the state’s requirements for either traditional or alternative certification is one of the strongest indicators that the statewide teacher shortage has not yet reached bottom.
Two weeks ago, Steffie Corcoran, spokeswoman for the state Department of Education, said administrators there were expecting the new batch of emergency certifications in August to be on par with August 2017’s group of 574.
But the state saw a last-minute surge in requests from districts desperate to fill classroom teaching vacancies as students return from summer break across the state.
“We are now experiencing the full weight of a crisis we have been warning of for the past three years,” State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister said. “It is no surprise, and our children have paid the price of years of inaction which cannot be immediately reversed.”
Tulsa Public Schools spokeswoman Emma Garrett-Nelson said the district has 276 new hires with or in the process of getting emergency certification.
Released last week, the Oklahoma State School Boards Association’s fifth annual statewide survey to gauge the extent of the teacher shortage found that public schools in Oklahoma are starting another academic year with nearly 500 teaching vacancies.
More than half of superintendents in districts that serve nearly 78 percent of all public school students in the state reported that teacher hiring is worse this year compared to last year.
Skeptics of Oklahoma’s teacher shortage point to the fact that there are shortages of teaching applicants in other states.
The certificates allow individuals to be employed as teachers before they complete the education or training requirements for regular or alternative certification. Some are certified teachers who lack certification in the subject matter or grade level in which they are needed to teach, but the vast majority are newcomers to education.
School superintendents have to certify to the state that no certified candidates were available to fill a position they wish to fill with someone who needs an emergency certificate.
Because of the teacher shortage, state law was changed two years ago to allow teachers to teach for two academic years with emergency certification.