Public education seeks to meet the needs of all students, and hiring effective teachers is a critical part of reaching that goal. However, many schools face hurdles when hiring. Nowhere are these challenges clearer than in rural districts struggling to fill classroom teaching positions under needlessly restrictive state teacher licensure requirements.
Colorado’s many rural school districts are made to follow the same licensure rules as their urban counterparts, even though the challenges facing these districts vary greatly. Licensure restrictions make it harder for rural districts to meet the needs of their students by forcing school and district leaders to stretch staff members too thin or leave positions unfilled.
Under current Colorado law, teachers are required to have a license to lead a classroom, though waivers may be applied for and granted by the Colorado State Board of Education in some circumstances. A traditional pathway to licensure requires at least a four-year degree in addition to further testing, background checks, and licensing fees. Those pursuing alternative licensure pathways must also fulfill meet state-mandated requirements. In either case, obtaining a teacher license can be both expensive and time consuming, making it a significant barrier to entry for those entering the work force.
These barriers have exacerbated the hiring challenges rural districts face. A 2016 Colorado Department of Higher Education (CDHE) report found that Colorado’s “overall teacher shortage continues to have a dramatic impact on rural districts, particularly those throughout the eastern plains.”
Pay discrepancies between rural and non-rural districts are often significant. Jefferson County has an average teacher salary of $54,923 and Denver has an average teacher salary of $50,247. In contrast, Kiowa C-2 and Limon RE-4J, both rural districts, have average teacher salaries of $33,715 and $35,917, respectively. Teachers, and especially teachers just entering the work force, tend to be drawn to higher-paying jobs in urban or suburban areas, making recruiting more difficult in rural areas of Colorado.
There are other reasons that young professionals are attracted to urban or suburban areas, including better access to resources, more options for professional advancement, and a wider variety of entertainment options. Combined with better-paying jobs, these factors promote a concentration of teachers in urban areas.
As a result, rural school districts often do not have large pools of licensed teachers from which they can draw should an opening occur. In some cases, positions remain unfilled for months or even years. Without an acknowledgement of this problem—and subsequent policy action to address it—there is little rural school leaders can do in such situations.
Although teacher licensure is a popular way to regulate education, its connection to effective teaching is tenuous. One study evaluating teacher effectiveness in New York City from 1999-2005 found that “On average, the certification status of a teacher has at most small impacts on student test performance.” Though some research has produced different results, overall research on the effects of licensure on student outcomes is mixed.
Given the lack of a consistent relationship between licensure and effectiveness, rigid adherence to licensure requirements does not make sense in all districts. Flexibility is the key to solving the rural hiring problem. For instance, rural leaders could be allowed to hire non-licensed teachers to fill open positions after a certain period of time. Such flexibility would allow smaller districts more autonomy in solving the hiring issues they face while closing education gaps created by restrictive licensing laws.
This is not to say that there should be no requirements at all for one to be a teacher. Some commonsense restrictions—background checks, for instance—should be in place for teachers. However, in the case of licensure, maximum hiring flexibility and trust for local school leaders should be prioritized over heavy-handed legal mandates.
School leaders are perfectly capable of exercising sound judgement about whom they want leading their classrooms, and they should be held responsible for the academic results of those hiring decisions should they turn out poorly. However, the idea that a former engineer could not be a high school math teacher simply because that person lacks a slip of paper from the state is farcical.
Allowing rural districts the ability to have greater freedom in filling personnel gaps when necessary not only allows for more local control of education but also ensures that the educational needs of all students are being met—precisely the goals Colorado should be working toward.
Alexander Hutton is a recent graduate of the University of Missouri and a development intern at the Independence Institute, a free market think tank in Denver.