Plan to allow more unlicensed educators dies again. Can the surviving bill fix teacher shortages?

A controversial measure that would have allowed school districts to hire more unlicensed teachers appears to be dead this session, leaving behind a bill that some lawmakers and advocates say does little to address the state’s teacher shortage.

The measure, which would have allowed districts to have up to 10 percent of their staff be unlicensed, has been added and removed from Senate Bill 387 several times this year and was removed altogether Monday by its author, Sen. Andy Zay, a Republican from Huntington.

Zay said he and other lawmakers decided to remove the language both because college graduates can already get emergency permits from the state to teach and because he didn’t want to add even more regulations and permits to Indiana’s roster.

“There are nine different licenses available now and/or permits to allow folks to come into our classrooms,” Zay said. “We have a lot of availability right now.”

The remaining parts of the bill make small changes to licensure and pay scales that aim to attract and retain teachers, but they’re not necessarily the kinds of measures that could reverse teaching shortages across the state, said Rep. Vernon Smith, a Democrat from Gary.

“We’re not getting to the root of the problems,” Smith said.

A former principal, Smith said he believes there are three reasons more people aren’t pursuing teaching: Pay, discipline issues in schools, and the recently criticized teacher licensure tests, which some educators and prospective teachers have said are too difficult and are keeping potentially qualified teachers out of the classroom.

In 2017, 6,160 college graduates earned an initial practitioner license, the credential that first-time teachers, administrators and other educators need to work in an Indiana school — up by about 35 percent compared to 2016, when 4,552 earned it, according to state data. The 2017 number isn’t just teachers, but also includes two superintendents, 612 principals, 149 school counselors, 33 psychologists and 32 social workers.

Although the state has issued more educator licenses over the past few years, educators have still come to lawmakers saying they struggle to find teachers in certain subjects, such as math, technical subjects and special education.

Indiana lawmakers turned their attention to reducing teacher shortages in 2015, when initial licenses hit a low point and news of a statewide shortage heightened concerns despite mixed data about how pervasive the shortage might be. But that next year, legislators failed to pass several bills that intended to address shortages by changing teacher mentoring programs and pay, among other things. The only measure to pass was a smaller-scale scholarship bill for high-achieving students across the state to go to college each year to become teachers.

Since then, a few other bills have passed that would require the state to grant Indiana licenses to teachers licensed in other states and allow districts to offer extra pay to those who teach advanced courses and who agree to mentor new teachers.

Zay said he thought this year’s bill wasn’t “the be-all, end-all,” but that it laid the groundwork for the state to continue examining its teacher licensure policy going forward.

With just three days left in this year’s legislative session, it’s not uncommon that legislators make swift, sweeping revisions to bills so that they have a chance of advancing. The teacher licensing language, which is similar to existing law for charter schools, has seen a lot of community feedback, much of it negative. The state’s teachers unions opposed the bill, as has former state Superintendent Glenda Ritz, who encouraged the state instead to support existing paths to licensure.

Union advocates spoke against a provision still in the bill that would allow districts to give certain teachers extra pay, an issue that’s been hotly debated in Indiana for years. Like teachers of advanced courses, elementary teachers who earn master’s degrees in math, reading or literacy could also receive an extra stipend. That money would not necessarily recur year after year, and it would not be able to be negotiated.

“You’re trying to fix a problem … that cannot be fixed solely with the supplemental pay issue,” said Sally Sloan, lobbyist for the Indiana Federation of Teachers. “Every year you are going to need to come back and put another category in there unless we address why people are not coming into teaching or why they are not staying.”

Separately, districts would still have the flexibility to give some teachers larger raises than others if unions agree to it in contract negotiations. The measure might encourage younger teachers with lower base pay to stick with teaching, administrators said. Teachers unions said they supported this measure.

Zay said State Superintendent Jennifer McCormick originally came to him with the idea for the legislation, which was reflected in her 2018 legislative agenda. Initially, the bill mostly addressed teacher licensure exams. In the compromise version of the bill, the Indiana Department of Education would still have to study other licensure test options, including national tests.

The bill also makes changes to the state’s career specialist permit, which was created to attract career-changers to the teaching field who might have expertise in other subjects.

Rep. Bob Behning, an Indianapolis Republican, asked to add back a House proposal that would require career specialists to pass an exam showing they understand how students learn and the practice of teaching, in addition to content exams. The bill also removes a provision from the current version of the permit that says a career specialist must have a bachelor’s degree in the area they wish to teach in.

The permit changes could make it easier for some prospective teachers to gain licenses, particularly those from technical fields where a college degree might not be required. But they also ensure a teacher has training in more than just their content area, a priority educators have pushed as licenses have undergone changes in the past few years.

The new version of the bill must still pass both houses before it could become law. Lawmakers are expected to adjourn Wednesday.