State board of education holds off on teacher licensure proposal

The Kansas State Board of Education instructed a group of school districts to revise a proposal that would allow them to bypass licensure regulations when hiring teachers.

The board originally planned to vote on the proposal Thursday, but decided the agenda item would be a discussion only, even before more than a dozen speakers from the public voiced their opposition to it.

“We got a letter from all the deans of schools of education concerned about this,” said board member Janet Waugh.

In 2013, Kansas created a system where up to 29 school districts could apply to be named an “Innovative District,” which would allow them to be exempted from certain state laws in the pursuit of innovation.

At least five of the six districts that currently hold that designation stated a desire to skirt licensure regulations when they applied. Rural western districts think it will help ease the challenge of recruiting teachers, while others believe more flexible regulations can increase education quality.

The six districts — known as the Coalition of Innovative Districts, including Blue Valley, Concordia, Hugoton, Kansas City, Marysville and McPherson — are proposing the creation of a Specialized Training Certificate for prospective employees without proper licensure. To receive one would require the passage of a background check and approval from the local and state school boards.

Fifteen people — including teachers, advocates and administrators from university education departments — spoke in opposition to the proposal during a public comment section of Thursday’s meeting.

They repeatedly appealed to the idea that lowering the standards for doctors, lawyers or plumbers would not be an acceptable course of action to combat a shortage of workers in those industries. They also criticized the Specialized Teaching Certificate for not requiring any level of education or experience for prospective employees. Several members of the state board also made similar concerns clear.

“This sounds like a decision that’s best for a principal or administrator, not what’s best for our students,” said Tammy Bartels, the president of the Kansas PTA.

“No known country has positively impacted student learning by decreasing teacher qualifications and standards,” said Kenneth Weaver, the dean of Emporia State Unviersity’s Teachers College.

Several members of the state board criticized the coalition for not collaborating with other institutions, like university school of education departments, on their proposal.

Cynthia Lane, the superintendent for the Kansas City school district, said the coalition would invite other stakeholders to join the conversation as it revisits its proposal.

Lane also stressed that the goal of the proposal is not about hiring less qualified teachers. She said the coalition, if the proposal were to be approved, would consider licensure, educational degrees, experience and references when considering the applicants for a Specialized Training Certificate.

The board would also hold participating school districts responsible for providing some level of pedagogy to those who receive a Specialized Training Certificate, Lane said.

“We need to be thoughtful and when we’re ready, we bring it back,” said Jim McNiece, the chair of the state board. “Include the folks that need to be there.”

State assessments working well

Following a year in which cyberattacks killed the state’s annual assessment tests, staff from the Kansas State Department of Education’s Career Standards and Assessment Services team reported there were no major issues so far this year.

After schools across Kansas reported widespread problems last year, the board decided not to use any results of the tests, which play a role in accrediting schools and determining their qualification for federal funding. The state used a new online system for the tests that year.

This year, though, the state has experienced only minor issues, which have been quickly addressed, according to Scott Smith, the director of the assessment services team. He said there have been no problems with bandwidth, connectivity or cyberattacks.