A new law allowing public school districts to hire non-certified teachers full time is doing as intended, its backers say, despite concerns it is further eroding the quality of instruction in Oklahoma classrooms.
“It’s about finding people who want to be in the classroom, and then finding the supports and directions to get them on the road to standard certification,” said Shawn Hime, executive director of the Oklahoma State School Boards Association.
State Rep. John Waldron, D-Tulsa, and a former Tulsa Public Schools teacher, said the change is another example of legislators refusing to address the real issue — a deepening deficit of qualified teachers. This year, Oklahoma has already shattered all records for teachers brought into classrooms with less than full certification.
“We’re using the same thinking to address a problem that’s been growing and growing,” Waldron said. “Until we change course, we’re not going to solve it.”
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Signed into law last spring, Senate Bill 1119 eliminated the stamp on the number of hours that could be taught by each adjunct. SB 1119 did not change the sole requirement for adjunct status — “distinguished qualifications” in the relative field — but whereas such positions were previously part-time only, with a few exceptions they can now be used to fill out the full-time faculty.
Adjuncts do not have to have a college degree of any kind — or, apparently, even a high school diploma.
But the actual academic background of those being hired as adjuncts, and how they are being used, is unclear. It’s not even clear how many full-time adjuncts are working in the state. The Oklahoma State Department of Education says its last check found 370, but a list gleaned from an OSDE database produced only 236 names.
The information for those 236 is sparse.
Almost 100 have no record in the OSDE’s teacher certification database. About 40% have or previously had some form of certification requiring a college degree. Some have newly acquired standard certifications, which suggests that perhaps they were on adjunct status only temporarily while their credentials went through.
Adjuncts may not teach special education, pre-kindergarten or kindergarten students, but elementary schools reported the largest number of adjuncts on the list — 110.
Subjects taught range from grade school to high school math and science. At least one adjunct is described as a school nurse.
Most adjuncts work for smaller districts, although the largest employer of them is Edmond Public Schools, with a total of 48 at 17 schools. Most of Edmond’s adjuncts appear to have or once had standard or emergency certifications.
All of Tulsa County’s schools combined have only eight, and six of those are in the Broken Arrow Public Schools system. Tulsa Public Schools have no full-time adjuncts, and neither do Oklahoma City Public Schools.
While Hime and others say administrators are using the new law as a faster alternative to emergency certification, it’s not a zero-sum tradeoff. Emergency certifications, which once numbered in the dozens, are already at nearly 4,200, breaking last year’s record. Part-time adjuncts, including certified faculty teaching outside their areas of expertise, have gone from less than 100 a decade ago to 2,400 last year.
SB 1119’s authors, Sen. Jessica Garvin, R-Duncan, and Rep. Kyle Hilbert, R-Bristow, said their bill is intended as a stopgap measure to help districts deal with the nationwide teacher shortage, and it gets people without a traditional teacher education background started on the road to certification.
“I think it’s doing exactly what it was intended to do,” Hilbert said. “People can work as adjuncts until they are able to become certified.”
He disputed the notion that “19- and 20-year-olds” are or will ever be hired under the new law, but agreed that would be up to local school boards.
“If somebody is hiring people they shouldn’t, who is it?” Hilbert said. “Bring it to us, and we’ll take a look.”
Anecdotally, it appears that for the first time in many decades, some full-time public school teachers do not have college degrees. The number is almost certainly low, but some see it as another step down a path that devalues education and suggests teaching is something anyone off the street can do.
Asked if a handful of adjunct teachers without degrees is really such a big deal, Waldron replied, “Emergency certification wasn’t a big deal 10 or 15 years ago. Now it’s huge.”
Adjuncts, Waldron said, “will become a permanent shortcut, and we’ll have an even less clear picture of our teacher workforce.”
Hilbert, the speaker pro tem of the House, said more needs to be invested in teacher education. He does not believe his bill will become the “permanent shortcut” Waldron predicts.
“You’re going to be better off getting certified,” Hilbert said. “An adjunct isn’t really going to want to make a career as an adjunct. It’s not an attractive alternative.”
Adjuncts are paid less — in some cases, much less — than certified teachers, which Hilbert and others believe is an incentive to complete certification.
Waldron saw it as a further insult to the profession and maybe an opportunity to squeeze budgets and chase off more teachers.
He noted that the idea that teachers should have college degrees was derived by some state leaders as “elitists,” and said too much of the state’s efforts involved working around the loss of professional teachers instead of stemming the loss itself.
“Teachers are called all kinds of names by people in state leadership,” said Waldron. “We’re weaponizing so-called parent voice groups against teachers. We’re threatening their certifications. None of that helps. When you put it together with the idea that it’s elitist to require qualifications for teachers, all of that is to suggest teachers aren’t respected. It just deepens the problem. You can insult them only so many times before they ask themselves whether they’re chumps for staying in the job.”
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