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Six questions with Oklahoma Department of Education’s Steffie Corcoran

The Tulsa Voice: Tell us a little bit about your background in public education and how you came to be the executive director of communications at the Oklahoma State Department of Education. What does your current job entail?

Steffie Corcoran: Between 1994 and 2000, I was a language arts and Gifted & Talented teacher at Del Crest Junior High in the Mid-Del district. Those years as an educator never left my heart, even after a long career as an editor for Oklahoma Today magazine. When Phil Bacharach, now the OSDE’s Senior Policy Advisor, told me about the Communications department vacancy in August, I was intrigued by the idea of again serving kids and teachers and decided to apply. 

TTV: Oklahoma’s education crisis seems to be reaching a tipping point. We earned a D-Plus on our most recent state report card—putting us at 46th in the nation. Our classrooms are over-populated and underfunded, and our teachers are so poorly paid that we are losing them to work in other states. How did we get here, and how do we fix it? 

SC: How we got here is a long answer with many tendrils. I can tell you that none of this is new. Public education in Oklahoma has a history of struggling to meet funding needs, treating and compensating teachers in ways that acknowledge and respect them as professionals, and valuing education in general. The same situations, to a lesser degree, were facing the teachers in my building more than 20 years ago. 

TTV: In light of our teacher shortage, the number of emergency teaching certificates issued dramatically increased this past year. What are the baseline requirements for receiving an emergency teaching certificate and how do you ensure the recipient is qualified to be in the classroom? 

SC: A context for the magnitude of our teacher shortage: We have emergency-certified 1,037 teachers this school year. For all of 2014, that number was 506. As recently as 2011, the total number for the year was 32. 

Emergency certifications are granted only after a district has exhausted a search for a particular position and been unable to find credentialed applicants. That district superintendent then petitions the State Board of Education for approval to hire a specific nontraditional applicant. The qualifications are that the candidate have a degree, preferably in a field related to the vacancy, and eventually be willing to pursue a traditional or alternative certification pathway in order to stay in the classroom. Superintendent Hofmeister often speaks of her gratitude for our emergency certified teachers, who have stepped up to the plate to fill a great need in great numbers.

TTV: Governor Fallin recently announced plans for a $3,000 pay-raise for teachers. This seems like a vital and urgent move. But House Minority Leader Scott Inman asserts this is an empty promise, impossible to implement because it will require a supermajority in both Houses to pass the necessary tax increase. How realistic is this proposed raise? If a tax increase doesn't pass, are there alternative options? 

SC: In her first year in office, Superintendent Hofmeister has been raising a clarion call about teacher pay and Oklahoma’s teacher shortage in virtually every speaking engagement. The OSDE believes that raising teacher compensation in Oklahoma to the regional average is indeed vital and urgent. As you know, there are a number of pay increase proposals currently making their way through the legislature, in addition to an initiative petition. There will likely be more as the legislative session progresses and various proposals are amended, budget-checked, and vetted. The budget situation is sobering, and we are aware that finding ways to fund teacher pay increases will be immensely challenging. We remain committed and believe that the issue has reached critical mass at a statewide level.

TTV: Governor Fallin has also proposed to consolidate the administration of dependent pre-K – 8 schools with neighboring pre-K –12 districts. Oklahoma has 516 school districts, 97 of which are dependent. Does this mean that these schools will close, or their administration will shrink or be located elsewhere? What does the public need to know about proposed school consolidation?

SC: It is too early in the legislative session to speculate on what might or might not happen with the consolidation bills currently under discussion. I would refer you to the bills’ authors for a fuller picture.

TTV: How does the Department of Education attempt to remain politically neutral when so many education-related issues (funding, teacher pay, programming) are determined by the politics of who is elected and what bills do or do not pass? 

SC: Superintendent Hofmeister is committed to serving public schoolchildren in Oklahoma, period. Keeping our eye on the importance of our mission: to champion excellence for all Oklahoma students through leadership, engagement, and service. It keeps things in perspective and reminds us of why we’re here and what we’re here to do. 

For more from Liz, read her article on the effect of Oklahoma's revenue failure on arts funding.

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