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Oklahoma Department of Education says 533 teachers recruited with new sign-on bonus program

Students work on a group project in math class.
Kieran Kesner for NPR
Students work on a group project in math class.

Oklahoma’s new teacher sign-on bonus program championed by State Superintendent Ryan Walters is poised to award 533 teachers with bonuses ranging from $15,000-$50,000 — despite initial concerns about its legality.

Disbursement of bonus checks is pending receipt of required documents, a final certification check, a final check on years of service, and a signed five-year agreement.

The amount of the bonus increases based on certain qualifications, like teaching students with special needs or working with rural and high-poverty schools.

Only educators who didn’t teach in Oklahoma last year were eligible, which garnered criticism from Oklahoma teachers already in the trenches. The department says around 350 pre-K through third grade and nearly 170 special needs teachers were recruited.

The new program drew frustration from districts initially, as they were told they would be on the hook for collecting back bonus money if their teachers didn’t fulfill their 5-year contract. The department says it will be handling that now.

One former department employee, Matt Colwell, was a program manager of school success before he was fired this spring for raising concerns about the program’s legality to the state’s attorney general and a state representative. Colwell has since filed a federal wrongful termination lawsuit against Supt. Walters and the department’s chief policy advisor, Matt Langston.

Namely, Colwell flags two issues:

First, the stipends, which are funded with federal money, don’t meet the federal standard of “reasonableness,” which states are required to consider and provide documentation of to prevent misuse of federal funds. For example, if a 75-student school district requested federal funds to purchase school buses, one or two buses might be reasonable but five buses would not — unless the district could show it is so spread out that it needs to run five routes at once.

Colwell said the department may struggle to justify the bonuses as reasonable because it historically hasn’t provided recruitment incentives over $2,500.

Second, Oklahoma law caps teacher incentive bonuses at 50% of a teacher’s salary.

The Oklahoma Voice news outlet reported Thursday the attorney general’s office declined to confirm whether it’s investigating Colwell’s allegations.

You can read more in-depth coverage about the sign-on bonus from this reporting collaboration between StateImpact and Oklahoma Watch.

You can also read the department’s full guidance on bonuses here.

StateImpact Oklahoma is a partnership of Oklahoma’s public radio stations which relies on contributions from readers and listeners to fulfill its mission of public service to Oklahoma and beyond. Donate online.

Beth Wallis holds a journalism degree from the University of Oklahoma. Originally from Tulsa, she also graduated from Oklahoma State University with a bachelor's degree in music education and a master's degree in conducting performance. She was a band director at a public school for five years.