The top education official in Kansas on Tuesday proposed allowing more schools to hire educators who don’t qualify for teaching licenses under the state’s current system — and signaled he would support changes to state regulations if needed.
The proposal could meet with resistance from the state’s main teachers union and educators who opposed similar changes to licensure requirements in recent years that they viewed as lowering professional standards. But it could also find support among school administrators seeking more flexibility to recruit for tough-to-fill teaching positions.
Education Commissioner Randy Watson outlined the proposal during a meeting of the Kansas State Board of Education in Topeka.
“I’m not trying to lower the standards,” Watson said. “I think what I’m saying is, there are certain pockets of people that don’t fit to get a license.”
The proposal is in its early stages, with no details yet on what type of applicants would be approved. But Watson said the goal is to offer an option that allows “freedom and adaptability,” letting schools and applicants make a case for would-be teachers who are shut out by Kansas’ existing credentialing system.
The state’s system includes traditional routes to earning a teaching license — involving college studies in education and other requirements — and a number of tailored alternatives, such as exceptions for science professionals with industry experience.
Framework for change
Watson suggested allowing a limited number of aspiring teachers who don’t qualify for licenses to make their cases to a board based at the Kansas State Department of Education, such as the Professional Standards Board.
“If there are regulations or laws that need to be changed, we can do it,” he told board members, when asked whether there are legal barriers to executing his idea.
Watson described his proposal as a framework, and suggested the state board could craft it further in collaboration with the Professional Standards Board — which includes teachers, administrators and representatives from Kansas universities — and a similar committee focused on Kansas’ teacher shortage.
Watson made his proposal during a presentation on the shortage. Kansas schools are facing a dearth of applicants that is predominantly affecting parts of southwest Kansas and the high-poverty, urban Kansas City Kansas and Wichita school districts.
His inspiration for the idea, he said, came from the Coalition of Innovative School Districts, a handful of school districts that already enjoy similar flexibility under a 2013 law. Two members of that group — the Kansas City Kansas and Marysville districts — have hired 37 teachers over the past few years under that law, which freed them to hire non-licensed job candidates with permission from the State Board of Education.
‘Devil’s in the details’
The coalition, which Watson helped spearhead, faced opposition from the Kansas National Education Association and teachers who argue against hiring non-licensed applicants.
Marcus Baltzell, spokesman for the KNEA, said Tuesday he applauds Watson and the state board for exploring options to deal with Kansas’ teacher shortage.
But he and Kansas State University dean of education Debbie Mercer, in separate interviews, both expressed some reservations about this latest proposal using the same phrase: “The devil’s in the details.”
“What happens when you have, say, a student that is mainstreamed with special needs in your classroom?” Baltzell asked. “We have standards for a reason. We have people go through teacher prep courses for a reason.”
Mercer, a member of the Professional Standards Board, said she understands that state education officials want to address the difficult situation principals are in when they don’t have enough applicants to fill their teaching jobs.
“Conceptually, it makes sense,” she said of his proposal. “How do we address the desperation?”
But she said the idea would appear to require subjective decisions about applicant suitability by the Professional Standards Board, and the challenge would be determining the principles for those decisions.
That flexibility, however, is exactly what appealed to at least one member of the state board Tuesday.
“I like the idea,” Hutchinson Republican Ken Willard said, expressing hope that the process would “be more subjective, where they actually hear the case for a person.”
The Kansas Association of School Boards also signaled interest.
“That’s something I believe we would be open to,” KASB lobbyist Mark Tallman said.
Tallman said the topic is not without controversy within his organization, but “historically we have been supportive of more flexibility.”
Celia Llopis-Jepsen is a reporter for the Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio covering health, education and politics. You can reach her on Twitter @Celia_LJ. Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished at no cost with proper attribution and a link back to kcur.org.