With the effects of the pandemic dragging on for another year, labor markets are acting strange and organizations are struggling to find qualified workers. Schools are no different. The teacher pipeline has slowed to a trickle as teacher preparation programs see fewer and fewer candidates. Teachers have been leaving the profession early. And the stress and uncertainty of a Covid-19 school year—with perhaps another one on the way—certainly isn’t helping.
This is a problem without one clear solution. And because of that, it can make the conversation difficult when so many of our public policy debates are soundbites and slogans. But one area of the teacher shortage problem that deserves more scrutiny is the role teacher licensing red tape and requirements play in making it difficult to get talented teachers into the classroom. Moreover, my experience highlights just how the absence of teacher licensing has allowed me to find my way into a classroom, bringing decades of professional experience to a school that launched an innovative curriculum.
Since 2018, I have served as the Executive Director of the Free Enterprise Academy at Milwaukee Lutheran High School in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. I teach business and free market curricula to a student body that is over 90 percent inner-city, economically-disadvantaged children—most participating in the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP). The opportunity at Milwaukee Lutheran allowed me to bring twenty-five years of experience as an attorney, including twelve years as a commercial litigator at a business law firm, into the classroom with the goal of developing financially literate graduates and students who can appreciate the free enterprise system and its role in creating wealth and opportunity.
But this opportunity, both for me and the students, is only possible outside of the teacher licensing system in Wisconsin. I have been asked to go back to my alma mater law school to teach on many occasions. But under Wisconsin’s current teacher licensing laws, teaching in a public school would have required all kinds of costly and time-consuming hoops and hurdles. While I may not be versed in pedagogy, one of my jobs as a litigator has been to educate clients, judges, and juries. And I’ve gotten very good at figuring out how to get my point across. I certainly cannot be the only one with the ability and willingness to put professional experience to use in a classroom for the benefit of students.
According to the Council of State Governments, teaching is one of the most regulated professions in America. And it stands to reason that as states pile on more and more regulations, we should expect that to play a role in the dwindling teacher supply. A recent study from the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty (WILL), where I am a fellow, on teacher licensing and the teacher shortage highlights just how long and difficult the path to becoming a fully licensed teacher really is. Add in that teacher licenses don’t always translate across state lines and the proliferation of licensing specializations narrows the pool of eligible teaching candidates further, and a picture comes together of a system that is working against itself, and certainly not for the benefit of students.
Advocates claim the current teacher licensing system is critical to ensure some quality control. And there may be some case to make for elementary school where teachers need to be prepared and competent to teach reading and literacy to young children. But at the high school level, the unintended consequence has been to exclude highly intelligent and experienced would-be instructors from our public schools at a time when they are needed the most. As many as 20 percent of those who completed an education preparation program in Wisconsin in 2017–18 failed to earn their teacher license. And given the state of many public schools, the evidence that licensing results in quality or academic achievement is lacking.
Public schools are going to have to decide what it will take for them to innovate and take back some control from the state over hiring and the teacher pipeline. School boards and district administrators best understand the needs of their students and should be able to do what is necessary to provide teachers, curricula, and programing for their schools. School districts in Wisconsin are already relying on more than 10,000 teachers with limited or provisional licenses. The state teacher licensing requirements may be stopping many more promising educators before they even try. If children are our future, then we are shooting our future in the foot.
Any serious attempt at education reform must address the teacher shortage issue. Improving the quality of our public schools requires attracting, training, and retaining good teachers. But the state has to give up some control over the process. Reforming teacher licensing to ensure motivated and smart people have multiple avenues to get to the classroom is a constructive policy conversation to alleviate our teacher shortage.