Through Act 1240 of 2015, school districts can ask for and receive the same waivers of state rules and laws that open-enrollment charter schools do. According to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, 53 Arkansas school districts have already received these waivers.
Of these 53 school districts, 25 specifically waived the teacher licensure requirement, allowing them to hire non-licensed teachers. This includes Pine Bluff and Smackover-Norphlet school districts, whose requests for the waiver were granted by the state Board of Education on Sept. 8.
Charter schools and traditional public school districts ask for this waiver because licensure laws impose undue hardships on schools to timely fill vacant positions with licensed teachers. In other words, licensure creates a shortage of teachers.
Why does licensure create teacher shortages?
Licensing imposes an extra cost on those wishing to become teachers, preventing some people from entering the profession. In addition, setting a high cutoff score for passing the licensure exams eliminates even more potential teachers. These two effects create a shortage.
The severity of the shortage, however, is felt disproportionately across the state. Rural areas suffer the most because of their failure to attract good teachers. This is, in part, due to the lack of economic opportunities in rural areas, making it financially unattractive to work there.
Robert Maranto, an endowed chair in leadership at the University of Arkansas, and James Shuls, a distinguished fellow of education policy at the University of Missouri, also point out that geographic-shortage districts lack the cultural amenities and social opportunities that help attract teachers.
So how do school districts in Arkansas currently deal with this shortage of teachers? By hiring substitute teachers.
In Arkansas, the minimum requirement to become a substitute teacher is a high school diploma or GED. While in certain cases substitute teachers may mitigate the disruptive impact on student learning caused by the absence of their regular teacher, there is evidence that shows that substitutes may negatively impact student learning. For example, researchers from the University of Duke found that substitute teachers negatively impact students' end-of-grade test scores.
A better solution to the teacher-shortage problem is to lower licensure requirements. Less burdensome licensing requirements would make it easier for people to enter the profession, increasing the pool of teachers.
The concern for some is that lowering the bar would result in the state compromising on teacher quality in Arkansas.
Such a concern is, however, grounded in the premise that teacher licensure implies "high quality." However, research does not support this claim. A 2016 study by Shuls, who is also an Arkansas Center for Research (ACRE) affiliated scholar, found that setting very high bars for teacher licensure screens out potentially effective teachers.
Teaching is a doing profession--not a test-taking profession. Instead of imposing burdens on people who want to enter the profession, Arkansas should lower the entry requirements by lowering the cutoff score. This will increase the quantity. Teacher quality can then be ensured by removing ineffective teachers from the classroom, rather than preventing aspiring teachers from entering it. Research by Eric Hanushek, a senior fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution, finds that this is an effective strategy for ensuring teacher quality.
Reducing licensure requirements is a tested and proven way for Arkansas to encourage more people to become teachers. If it's working in charter schools, and if public schools are demanding it with waivers, why not allow all schools the option so they can choose teachers that are best for them?
Mavuto Kalulu is a research associate at the Arkansas Center for Research in Economics (ACRE) at the University of Central Arkansas in Conway.
Editorial on 09/23/2016