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Kansas is looking to ease its substitute teacher shortage by lowering standards

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Suzanne Perez
/
KMUW
The Kansas Board of Education will consider a plan to lift some requirements for substitute teachers.

Teachers union officials say reducing requirements for substitutes could hurt the education students get.

WICHITA, Kansas — As Kansas school districts clamor for relief from unprecedented teacher shortages, state education officials could soon loosen some requirements for people who want to work as substitute teachers.

The Kansas Board of Education will hear a recommendation next week aimed at lifting — at least temporarily — a state requirement that subs have at least 60 hours of coursework at an accredited college or university.

Mischel Miller, the director of teacher licensure and accreditation for the Kansas Department of Education, said the COVID-19 pandemic, combined with nationwide labor shortages and higher-than-average teacher resignations, have left schools scrambling to cover classrooms.

Some districts already are ignoring current regulations, she said.

“There are systems … that are having to put people in front of students who do not hold that (substitute teacher) license,” Miller said. “Desperate times call for desperate measures.”

Some district officials say easing substitute requirements would allow them to hire people who could supervise classes and follow lesson plans but might not have college credit hours.

Blue Valley school board member Kaety Bowers, a licensed cosmetologist, said she has more than 3,000 hours of professional training, including certifications in CPR and first aid. But under current regulations, she would not be able to work as a sub.

Bowers told the state school board last month that districts are scrambling to cover classrooms when teachers resign or are out sick with COVID-19.

“We’re having teachers quit at quarter, at semester, in the middle of the week. And we can’t fill these spots,” she said. “I think 12 to 18 months of just lessening those requirements would help us recover and help us find people.”

Marcus Baltzell, a spokesman for the Kansas National Education Association, said reducing requirements for substitutes could hurt the education students get.

“We’re saying we can take this classroom teacher, who’s trained in pedagogy and everything that comes with that, and just replace them with someone off the street? And we’re going to do that because it’s a crisis?” Baltzell said. “What’s best for students is to have a fully certified teacher in every classroom and subs who have the proper credentials to do the job.”

Baltzell said Kansas lawmakers worsened teacher shortages by limiting how districts can respond to the pandemic. A state law passed last year limits remote learning to 40 hours per student or schools risk losing more than half of state funding for that student.

That creates tough decisions for districts. Officials have to decide whether to hold classes during an outbreak, cancel school or offer online education and risk a loss of state funding.

It also creates more pressure for teachers, Baltzell said.

“We’re hearing … examples where administrators are telling their teachers, ‘You can’t be sick,’” he said. “When you minimize the impacts of a global pandemic and say, ‘We’re going to do these things regardless,’ this is what happens.”

Kansas isn’t the only state considering reducing requirements for substitutes. Missouri reduced its education requirement from 60 college credits to requiring only a high school diploma. Iowa relaxed its regulations, from requiring a bachelor’s degree to requiring some college credits.

Michigan lawmakers passed a bill last month that would temporarily allow school support staff, such as bus drivers and cafeteria workers, to substitute teach even if they don’t have a single college credit.

Miller, Kansas’ director of teacher licensing, has not offered details on what a proposal may look like. The state board is scheduled to hear a presentation during its meeting Tuesday and vote on recommendations the following day.

“What we have talked about in our office is adjusting the qualifications for that license,” Miller said. “We will always maintain the minimum standard is that they pass the fingerprint and background check.”

Suzanne Perez reports on education for KMUW in Wichita and the Kansas News Service. You can follow her on Twitter @SuzPerezICT.

The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy.

Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished by news media at no cost with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org.