Last-minute proposal would let up to 10 percent of teachers in Indiana district schools be unlicensed

Indiana lawmakers introduced a last-minute proposal on Wednesday that would allow public school districts to bypass certain standards and hire up to 10 percent of their teachers without a traditional state teaching licenses.

The measure, added to Senate Bill 387 during a Senate Education Committee meeting, would ostensibly allow public schools to be more competitive with charter schools at a time when many districts are having difficulty finding qualified teachers, particularly in areas like special education, science and math. Charter schools tend to have fewer regulations for hiring than traditional districts, and are currently only required to have 90 percent of teachers hold licenses.

The measure also would allow districts to hire up to 10 percent of teachers who have not passed content area exams as a way to increase the pool of people who might fill those areas of particular shortage, as well as other positions. The exams have been criticized recently for being too difficult and keeping potentially qualified teachers out of the classroom.

The bill is the latest attempt by Indiana Republicans to allow looser teacher licensure rules — a philosophy that has put them at odds with teachers unions. Lawmakers have already overhauled the rules to offer permits to those who don’t meet all of the education theory and university course requirements.

The latest proposal was an amendment to a bill introduced during the last day it could be heard and was posted just as the bill went up for its hearing. It is considered a major step forward for those who want to reduce regulation within districts.

“We’re trying to create opportunities to fill positions,” said the bill’s author, Sen. Andy Zay, a Republican from Huntington. “What I’d like to see … is doors are wide open for people to come in and teach.”

The bill next heads to the Senate floor, where it is expected to receive a vote in the coming week.

Zay said the idea for the bill came from the Indiana Department of Education.

State Superintendent Jennifer McCormick, a Republican and a former public school superintendent, said she supports the bill and that the new proposal might help districts hire hard-to-find teachers. She said the state has already issued 3,000 emergency teaching permits to districts to bridge hiring gaps.

McCormick pointed out that while she supports teachers being licensed, she knows many districts are relying on long-term substitutes — teachers who might only have a high school diploma. Under this proposal, districts could hire teachers who hold alternative licenses that require little more than bachelor degrees, like the license allowed for charter schools, or no licenses at all

“Superintendents who hire, school boards, still have to be that final approval,” McCormick said. “I have faith in our districts. We are at the point where we are starting to cut opportunities for kids … because we simply do not have people to fill classrooms.”

Just last year, Republican lawmakers passed a law that weakened the state’s “90 percent-10 percent” rule for licensing teachers in charter schools. Previously, Indiana law said 90 percent of teachers must hold a traditional state teaching license, or be pursuing one, and 10 percent can hold an alternative teaching permit. Under the new language passed in House Bill 1382, the state’s charter school license counts toward the 90 percent.

Senate Bill 387 has proposed similar language to allow teachers in district schools to get the same alternative permits.

A number of education advocates spoke in favor of the bill.

“We see no reason why traditional schools shouldn’t have the same flexibility when making hiring decisions” as charter schools, said Caitlin Bell, vice president for policy and government affairs for the Institute for Quality Education, which advocates for school choice.

But others were caught off guard by the amendment, and said they were concerned about a provision that would allow people meeting criteria of a “workplace specialist” permit, which requires just a high school diploma and work experience, to teach science and math courses. Zay said he would work on an amendment to ensure the concern was addressed.

Initially, the bill dealt with teacher licensure exams. The bill would allow districts to hire up to 10 percent of teachers who have not passed those exams. Recently, the tests have been a stumbling block for a number of would-be teachers, prompting the Indiana State Board of Education to look into the tests, which are created by Pearson. The licensure test exemptions would allow an additional 10 percent to teach without meeting all the requirements of a traditional license.

The bill also satisfies another Republican wish, which is to enhance teacher pay for those who meet districts’ needs and are not subject to union collective bargaining. It would allow districts to pay teachers more if they teach hard-to-fill subjects such as special education, science, technology, engineering or math.

Previously, little by little, lawmakers passed laws allowing bonuses for teachers of advanced courses, dual credit college courses and those with master’s degrees in their subject areas.

Sally Sloan, with the Indiana branch of the American Federation of Teachers, said the bonus measure is a symptom of a larger problem: Schools don’t have enough money to pay teachers.

“This is trying to fix a problem we have in a very piecemeal way,” Sloan said. “Perhaps addressing the problem is to fund schools adequately and then trust the local school board, administration and teachers to use that money in the right way.”