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Not enough teachers? Try fewer regulations, says a politician cum principal

Author: Dan Njegomir - May 15, 2017 - Updated: June 6, 2017

The perennial teacher shortage that bedevils many Colorado school districts, especially in rural communities, prompted legislation this year to study the problem in depth in the hope it will yield a solution at some point. That bill is now on its way to the governor.

Bob Schaffer thinks he could have saved lawmakers the trouble with this simple advice: Cut regulations, instead. Particularly, the requirement for licensing teachers in the state’s public schools.

The conservative Republican and longtime education-reform advocate once was a state lawmaker himself. He also was a lot more — a three-term congressman from Colorado’s 4th Congressional District; a member of the State Board of Education, and a leading strategist of the state’s school-choice movement. He is now the principal at Fort Collins’s vaunted Liberty Common High School, a charter school that is regularly among the state’s top academic performers. And in his spare moments, he pens a column for hometown paper The Coloradoan.

In his latest column, published last week, Schaffer drills down on what he believes is a big reason there aren’t enough teachers to go around. He writes, “It’s high time to liberate educators” from the strictures of licensure, and he bemoans the demise of another bill in the 2017 session that barely saw light of day but, he maintains, could have done much more to tackle the teacher shortage:

…Earlier in the session, one lawmaker petitioned his colleagues to suspend rural teacher-licensure requirements in order to free up available talent — for example, people with English degrees, engineering degrees, agriculture degrees and other relevant academic credentials — to fill classroom teaching jobs. The lawmaker spiked his own proposal, saying he couldn’t persuade members of the House Education Committee to support it.

As it turned out, the bill got crosswise with the education establishment:

…these politicians had been lobbied by the State Board of Education, which voiced its opposition to the idea of allowing unlicensed teachers to help rescue rural schoolchildren. So did the Colorado Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, which fiercely defends coercive licensure regulations and other artificial barriers to market entry.

Schaffer says that’s ironic because that same establishment itself is on record questioning the value of licensure:

In 2012, the Colorado Department of Education began questioning the value of teacher licensure. It reported, “The current system of licensure relies primarily on program completion and qualifications that are not meaningfully connected to student learning.”

Licensing officials admitted the current licensure system “is largely input-focused and compliance-based, relying on qualifications that do not accurately measure educator preparedness or effectiveness.” The Commissioner of Education bluntly added, “a teacher license guarantees nothing.” They’re right.

Despite licensure requirements that serve no pragmatic purpose, Colorado schoolteachers are coerced into forking over enormous sums and diverting considerable amounts of classroom time in order to qualify for, purchase and maintain credentials regarded as meaningless by the same government that issues them.

Unlicensed teachers? But, isn’t that crazy talk? How will we know if they are qualified? According to Schaffer, that’s a consideration that should be left to the schools themselves, not state law or the state education bureaucracy. And he maintains some of the best schools already do it that way:

There’s no rational reason rural principals should be denied the same freedom to hire competent unlicensed instructors, as most of the state’s top-performing public schools have been doing for over 20 years.

Indeed, charter public schoolteachers, for example, are exempt from licensure requirements. For decades, charter principals have been free to hire legitimate content experts, former college professors, and other experts whose invaluable professional experiences have prepared them for encore careers as teachers.

Unlicensed teachers are among the state’s best classroom instructors. Their students are among the most thoroughly prepared for college — consistently.

OK, but here’s the real question: Is Schaffer (who many years ago was this blogger’s boss in a former profession) just peddling a mantra — deregulation — of his political ilk? Or, does his prescription have practical value for luring more teachers into the trenches in the hardest-to-fill slots in rural Colorado?

We blogged about the spiked bill Schaffer references, and it’s worth pondering the words of its sponsor at the time it was derailed. Rep. Jim Wilson of Salida is a Republican but hardly an ideologue on education reform (or any other issue); he didn’t come across as someone picking a fight with the teachers union, just as a lawmaker frustrated by understaffed schools in his district — and proposing what he saw as a common-sense step.

Wilson, quoted by Chalkbeat’s Nicholas Garcia, seemed exasperated at the lack of support for his bill amid no real alternatives:

“My question is: Who is going to be concerned between unlicensed educators versus no educators? … There’s no easy simple solution to going out and finding (licensed teachers). They’re not there. I’ve never seen this kind of crisis — ever.”

Dan Njegomir

Dan Njegomir

Dan Njegomir is the opinion editor for Colorado Politics. A longtime journalist and more-than-25-year veteran of the Colorado political scene, Njegomir has been an award-winning newspaper reporter, an editorial page editor, a senior legislative staffer at the State Capitol and a political consultant.


  • intheaspens

    May 15, 2017 at 11:09 am

    While this would possibly ease the shortage a bit, I would submit that the reason that many no longer want to teach due to the atmosphere in classrooms today. A combination of lack of discipline, the chance of litigation if one attempts to impose even the most mild disciplinary tactics, and the imposition of “politically correct” agenda rather than real learning are keeping qualified and otherwise dedicated out of the teaching profession in droves.

  • UBG

    May 15, 2017 at 12:59 pm

    I keep threatening to leave my engineering job to teach and experience a different flavor of stress. I also have 2 years of experience as a teaching assistant. In addition to grading homework, I actually lectured and held office hours. If I could earn roughly the same hourly rate and didn’t have to take all of the “education” courses, then I would seriously consider teaching.

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