Kansas extends lower requirements for substitute licenses

Expecting to see the “most severe educator shortage in Kansas history this fall,” the state board of education has agreed to allow high school graduates without college credit to be substitutes this coming semester.

But some teacher unions have raised concerns, worried officials might consider further extending the relaxed requirements, a move they say could harm students and dilute classroom instruction.

In January — as some school districts were closing and canceling classes due to record staffing shortages during the COVID-19 — the Kansas State Board of Education declared an emergency and lowered requirements for who can qualify to apply for an emergency substitute teaching license in Kansas .

The state usually requires a minimum of 60 semester credit hours from a regionally accredited college or university. The emergency declaration removed that minimum requirement. Under the new rules, candidates must: be at least 18 years old; have a high school diploma; have a verified commitment from a district for employment; and pass a background check.

Officials had called it a temporary and “last resort” measure, in an effort to keep schools open and offer relief to teachers and administrators. The declaration was set to expire this month.

But on Wednesday, Mischel Miller, Kansas’ director of teacher licensure and accreditation, warned that the state is poised to see its worst ever teacher shortage this fall. The board voted 7-3 to temporarily extend the relaxed requirements for emergency replacement licenses, through the end of December.

“I want to make certain this is intended to be temporary,” board member Deena Horst said. “And our problem that we’ve just been through is going to more than likely be worse. … As a substitute, I know, I’ve seen the list that Salina (school district) has. Any day, I can sub in probably 20 to 30 different locations or classrooms. And I’ve never seen it like that before. And if it’s going to get worse, it’s not good for kids to be put in a classroom with 50 other kids.”

Applicants who do not have 60 hours of college credit hours would be required to complete an online training program, teaching their classroom management strategies and more.

Districts have discretion over whom they select. And under the new requirements, someone with no college credit could not teach in the same position for more than 15 consecutive days.

In April, Miller reported to the board that the state had 1,381 teaching vacancies, up from 1,253 in October. Last fall, officials said that vacancies had risen roughly 62% over the year before. The highest number of vacancies are in special education and elementary schools.

And Miller said that number is a low estimate, because districts often report more vacancies later in the spring.

The full scope of this fall’s teacher shortage is not yet clear. Districts lost staff during the pandemic, many saying they were overwhelmed by COVID-19 safety concerns, as well as student mental health challenges and learning loss. Many teachers are burnt out after sacrificing their planning times to teach multiple classes when substitutes were not available.

They have seen more school threats, fights and violence this year, including recently watching the mass shooting unfold at an elementary school in Texas that left 19 students and two teachers dead. And educators also have been caught in the middle of heated political debates, as school boards have hosted continual protests over curriculum, race, LGBTQ issues and banning books.

Still, some educators are concerned about the state’s temporary fix to the shortage, worried that the state board could continue extending the relaxed requirements for subs.

Kansas National Education Association President Sherri Schwanz wrote in a letter that the group had supported the change over the winter because “it was a temporary solution.”

But now, she wrote, the board is extending it, “with only a bare bones video course required for prospective substitutes. Is there a guarantee that this is the last extension?”

“Kansas NEA opposes any efforts to reduce standards for license,” she wrote. “Reducing standards weakens the profession and makes it easier for unqualified and inexperienced individuals to enter classrooms and have direct contact and influence over students.”

She said the state must take a multi-faceted, long-term approach to attract and retain more teachers. Schwanz added that, “reducing standards to simply place a warm body in front of students is potentially dangerous and is not the answer.”

Leaders of the Olathe NEA echoed similar concerns, writing in a Facebook post that, “Many educators are concerned that this change fails to recognize the professional nature of our job.”

Miller told the board last month that more than 900 substitutes received emergency licenses under the new requirements this past semester. She said about 30% of the candidates were in their 20s; 20% were in their 30s; and 14% were under the age of 21. Miller said only one emergency sub was 18 years old.

State school board members affirm that lowering standards for emergency substitutes was a temporary move. But some board members had reservations, saying that the decision should have been postponed and put under stronger review.

Board member Janet Waugh said lowering emergency sub requirements last winter was “the most difficult vote I’ve ever made. Because frankly we were removing barriers, but we also removed quality.”

“Our kids are not worth messing them up,” said Waugh, who voted “no” on Wednesday. “We’ve got to make sure we offer them nothing but quality.”

The state education department will continue to evaluate more permanent solutions to the teacher shortage and present options to the board in the coming months, officials said.

This story was originally published June 16, 2022 1:59 PM.

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Sarah Ritter covers K-12 education for The Kansas City Star. Formerly a reporter for the Quad-City Times, Sarah is a graduate of Augustana College.

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