Arkansas Education Secretary Jacob Oliva last week broached with state Board of Education members the idea of expanding the ways teacher candidates can attain state licensure besides taking qualifying tests.
"Are there other ways to demonstrate competency and mastery?" he asked, and wondered whether portfolios of work might be a way of qualifying some teacher candidates for state licensure.
The state's secretary of education since January said he was not advocating lowering the expectations for educators -- that there must be rigor -- but giving teacher candidates additional paths to licensure could result in people entering the profession, staying in it, and then being likely to evolve and grow.
At a work session on the licensure issue last week, he asked the board whether there was an appetite for exploring more options.
Oliva made the comments after the board heard Hugh Inman, deputy superintendent of the Marion School District, describe the ongoing challenges of filling vacant teacher positions in all subject areas but particularly special education teacher jobs.
The Marion district in east Arkansas has 312 jobs for state-licensed employees, Inman said. For this year there were 58 job openings. Of those, 31 jobs were filled with people who are not licensed.
"I'm not proud of it, but that is our reality," Inman said.
Those who were not licensed were hired as long-term substitutes or as the result of what are called "Act 1240 waivers," which is a state law that allows a non-licensed person to be hired in cases where a licensed individual is not available.
District or school requests for Act 1240 waivers of teacher licensure requirements must be submitted to the Arkansas Board of Education for approval.
The issue is complicated by the fact that federal law does not allow non-licensed teachers to teach special education, Inman and others told the Education Board members. Long-term substitutes fill those vacancies but cannot do so in one job for more than two consecutive semesters.
There are eight long-term substitutes out of 25 total special education jobs in Marion, Inman said, noting that every teaching job is challenging but none more so than special education.
Inman also said his district works to help substitutes and Act 1240 waiver employees acquire state licensure, but sometimes the employees are unable to pass the state-required Praxis subject area exam for their state license -- even when they have otherwise shown themselves to be good classroom teachers.
Other times, he said, the district loses new state-credentialed employees to other districts in other parts of the state. The district in recent years has lost teachers to higher-paying districts in Northwest Arkansas, he said, calling that a sign that the teacher shortage is a statewide issue.
The Marion district has begun offering bonuses of as much as $5,000 to teachers in high-need positions such as alternative learning environment teachers.
"But we can't hire people who don't apply and who do not want to live in east Arkansas," Inman said. The Marion district is just across the Mississippi River from Memphis.
In response to an executive order from Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the Arkansas Division of Elementary and Secondary Education solicited feedback from educators and others in surveys and focus groups "to identify unnecessary, outdated and burdensome licensure requirements."
Karli Saracini, state assistant commissioner for licensure and teacher effectiveness, said that 10% of respondents said there were barriers to licensure. In that 10%, 30 cited difficulty in meeting the assessment requirements as the greatest challenge. Another 27 cited difficulty in acquiring two separate background checks, 22 cited state-required professional development hours and 21 cited fees for educator preparation and licensure.
Documents prepared by Saracini for the Education Board showed that 43 of the state's 237 traditional school districts are operating with Act 1240 waivers of licensure requirements for some of their teaching positions.
Saracini said that there have been recent efforts to ease the requirements for professional development and for some fees. There is also a plan to require one background check instead of two -- one for the Education Department and one for the Department of Human Services.
She also said there is a push to inform teacher candidates of ways to become licensed apart from attending a traditional educator preparation program at a university.
Oliva told the board that he doesn't have a firm plan to fix it all, "but we do have some ideas."