RICHMOND — As teacher shortages continue in Virginia, the state is attempting to stave off further educational impacts by granting more provisional licenses.
The commonwealth issued a total of 8,434 provisional licenses in 2021-22 compared to an average of 6,787 in the years before the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a November report from Virginia’s Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission, which conducts analysis and provides oversight of state agencies on behalf of the General Assembly.
The Virginia Education Association, the state’s teachers union, has said the exodus of teachers, including highly qualified educators, is connected to low wages, increased workloads and politicized work environments.
“For a long time in Virginia, teachers with short-term provisional licenses have played an important role, and this is a totally viable pathway, eventually becoming a fully licensed teacher,” said Chad Stewart, policy analyst for the Virginia Education Association. “But the way this licensure is working now — given the magnitude of provisionally licensed teachers that we have — doesn’t necessarily match how it was envisioned.”
Provisional licenses are short-term, nonrenewable licenses granted by the Virginia Department of Education for teachers who haven’t met all of the state requirements to teach but still have some qualifications.
For example, people who have a bachelor’s degree from an accredited college or university but didn’t take education courses would not meet the department’s requirements for a standard teaching license. However, they could seek a provisional license.
The department also grants licenses to “out-of-field” teachers who have not yet completed their coursework or certification in the content area they are teaching.
In Virginia, provisionally licensed teachers have addressed shortages left behind by teachers. The November JLARC report found school divisions statewide have become more reliant on provisionally licensed teachers, with approximately 7.7% of all teachers being provisionally licensed before the pandemic and 9.5% falling in that category in 2021-22.
“This represents an unusually large change to the proportion of teachers with a provisional license, which did not exceed 8.3 percent in any previous year examined,” the commission wrote.
Virginia’s teacher vacancy rate increased from 3% in 2021-22 to 3.8% as of Oct. 1, according to the Department of Education. The data includes both licensed and unlicensed teachers. Special education has had the highest vacancy rate at the start of the past two school years.
Although the Virginia Education Association has in the past found vacancy rates to be higher in high-poverty and rural school divisions, it says vacancy rates at nonrural schools are now on par with those in other school divisions.
The role of provisional licensing
Both the Virginia Association of Superintendents and Virginia Education Association support provisional licensing. Scott Brabrand, executive director for the superintendents association, said in an email to the Mercury that the option is “another tool for school districts to use as needed.”
However, a teacher who has not completed specific teaching coursework is more likely to be less effective than a fully licensed teacher, according to the November JLARC report.
“Full licensure is important because it requires coursework related to methods of teaching (pedagogy), which contributes to teacher effectiveness at all grade levels,” JLARC wrote.
Stewart said it’s vital for teachers to have experience with pedagogical thinking, or the ability to think while instructing, and knowledge of how to design and sequence lessons to best help students retain knowledge. Without training in classroom management skills and student preparation, there are concerns about how successful provisional teachers can be.
“We’re not saying it’s not a viable pathway and it shouldn’t be out there for some folks that are really interested in pivoting into the teaching profession,” Stewart said. “But what we’re seeing now with thousands of new people entering into these roles is very concerning because it seems to be plugging the gap for [the] teacher shortage crisis that has gotten so bad in this state, and this masks the magnitude of how bad it’s gotten.”
Curbing teacher shortages
As school leaders around the state struggle to find ways to address teacher shortages, Arlington Public Schools has turned to a 2019 law creating an alternative route for teacher licensing.
That legislation, carried by Del. Roxann Robinson, R-Chesterfield, required the Board of Education to grant special consideration to people seeking a provisional license who have completed a program offered by a program accredited by the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation.
Del. Patrick Hope, D-Arlington, had backed a similar proposal aimed at helping Arlington Public Schools’ Montessori Program — the only Montessori program in Virginia’s public schools — address teacher shortages. Montessori schools are based on the educational theories of Maria Montessori and focus on more hands-on, student-directed learning than traditional classrooms usually offer.
At the time, Arlington’s program was having to turn away many experienced candidates because they lacked a Virginia teaching license and a Montessori credential.
“We were already feeling some of that pressure because the requirements to have a Montessori credential and a public school license in Virginia was already challenging,” said Monique O’Grady, a former school board member in Arlington.
The 2019 law required the State Board of Education to create a process that would let a school board or organization sponsored by a school board like the Montessori program ask the board to approve an alternate route for teachers to meet the requirements for a provisional or renewable license. That route could include “alternatives to the regulatory requirements for teacher preparation, including alternative professional assessments and coursework.”
Arlington proposed that candidates be eligible for a provisional teaching license if they hold at minimum a bachelor’s degree from an accredited college or university and a credential issued by an institution accredited by the Montessori Accreditation Council for Teacher Education while having successfully passed Virginia’s required Praxis tests in their specific area.
The board granted Arlington’s request on March 23.
“Montessori teaching is already under such demand that the pool is already small,” said O’Grady. “Any barrier that makes it harder for a teacher to come into Virginia to teach makes it harder for us to fill that position, and I think that’s really what we were fixing.”
Legislative and administrative efforts
Other bills passed during the 2022 and 2023 sessions have tried to give the state’s provisional licensing system more flexibility.
Last year, lawmakers allowed the Board of Education to temporarily extend certain teacher licenses by two years and issue a three-year provisional license to people with non-U.S. teaching licenses or certifications.
During the last session, lawmakers also gave the board authority to extend provisional licenses by up to two years based on a satisfactory performance evaluation and a superintendent recommendation.
But provisional licensing isn’t the only solution policymakers are eyeing to get teachers in the classroom.
Recent legislation carried by Del. Carrie Coyner, R-Chesterfield, and Sen. Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth, looks to retired school employees to address the teacher shortage.
Under existing law, Coyner said retired instructional and administrative employees, specialized student support employees and bus drivers with at least 25 years of service cannot return to work until a year after their retirement without jeopardizing their pension benefits.
The new legislation shortens that time period from one year to six months, allowing retired teachers to return to the classroom to fill vacancies more quickly.
Coyner said she pushed for reducing the break in service to one month but compromised at six months. Other proposals by Sen. Creigh Deeds, D-Bath, and Del. Rob Bell, R-Albermarle, would have reduced the return to work by three months. A different version of Deeds’ bill later passed.
Still, she said she is optimistic the legislation will help address shortages, since many retired school employees are seeking work.
“There are stories all over the commonwealth about children sitting in classrooms with long-term subs, who are very nice and are hardworking, but they don’t have the qualifications of a teacher and we should be doing everything we can to solve that,” Coyner said to the Mercury.
In hopes of getting retired employees into schools faster, the legislation also included language directing VRS to study whether retired school employees can return to work earlier than six months. The report is due to the House and Senate finance committee chairs by Nov. 1.
Meanwhile, proposals to improve teacher compensation and provide additional training and professional support to educators failed.
During a CNN town hall last month, Gov. Glenn Youngkin admitted that Virginia teachers are underpaid and touted lawmakers’ inclusion in the state budget of 10% raises for teachers over the next two years. Still, some education groups say the increases would leave Virginia teacher salaries below pre-pandemic pay levels due to inflation, as well as below the national teacher pay average. VEA said the House and Senate’s proposed 7% budget proposal would get teachers back to levels from 2019-20.
In 2022-23, the average teacher salary nationwide is $67,885 compared to Virginia’s $62,963, according to the VEA. The nationwide rate is expected to increase to $69,343 in the 2023-24 school year.
In September, Youngkin directed the Superintendent of Public Instruction to “use all discretion within law to issue teaching and renewal licenses, including to teachers licensed in another state and retired teachers whose licenses may have lapsed.”
The Department of Education responded by launching the Become a Teacher and Turning the Tide campaigns, which aim to reduce barriers for qualified people to enter the profession, increase the number of candidates eligible to fill hard-to-staff positions and improve recruitment and retention strategies.
JLARC is also reviewing the teacher pipeline, with a report expected in the early fall.
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