Starting in the early 2000s, with the implementation of No Child Left Behind, federal law required states to ensure that all public school teachers were “highly qualified.” That meant having a bachelor’s degree, full state certification, and subject-area mastery, often determined by a content test.
When ESSA was enacted in 2015, the highly qualified designation became a thing of the past. The new law requires states to set their own definition of a qualified teacher, and Ohio did that via Senate Bill 216 last year. The law requires public school teachers to be “properly certified or licensed,” which means they must possess one of the state’s approved teacher licenses.
For traditional districts, this change will have little impact. The vast majority of their educators enter the classroom with an Ohio teaching license thanks to one of the state’s many teacher preparation programs.
But it’s different for charter schools, many of which employ nontraditional teachers who have a bachelor’s degree but did not attend a conventional training program. Because these educators don’t enter the classroom the usual way, they tend to work under long-term substitute licenses until they meet state requirements for traditional or alternative licensure. Charters also use long-term substitute licenses to place teachers into hard-to-fill grade levels or subject areas and to increase the diversity of their workforce.
In short, charters rely a great deal on long-term substitute licenses. These are permitted by state law and were used extensively under No Child Left Behind’s “highly qualified” teacher framework, but the Ohio Department of Education has interpreted SB 216 to mean that teachers working under a long-term substitute license are not considered properly certified teachers. So unless something changes prior to the law going into effect in July, Ohio’s charter schools are about to lose a vital aspect of their hiring and recruitment flexibility.
Fortunately, the proposed state budget offers a simple fix. It eliminates the requirement for charter school teachers to be properly certified or licensed by the state. In addition to evidence being mixed on whether teacher licensure predicts classroom effectiveness, there are few reasons why that’s a good idea.
Autonomy in exchange for accountability
Buckeye charters are bound by the same accountability provisions as traditional district schools, including state report cards and federal sanctions. But they are also subject to additional measures, including an automatic closure law, which requires schools to permanently close after multiple years of poor performance, and the state’s sponsor evaluation system, which incentivizes authorizers to pay close attention to academic results. These tough accountability provisions ensure that persistently low-performing charter schools don’t stick around indefinitely, which is good news for kids, families, and communities. They also provide charter school leaders with a strong incentive to hire the very best teachers, regardless of whether they’ve gone through state regulatory hoops, because ineffective teaching lowers school ratings and risks closure. It therefore makes sense to grant them more hiring flexibility. (Keep in mind, too, that charters have more flexibility to swiftly dismiss poor-performing teachers without going through the bureaucratic procedures districts are subject to.) This is the grand bargain of charter schooling in action: stricter accountability in exchange for greater autonomy and flexibility in how schools build teams of great educators.
Competing for talent
Back in 2016, Fordham conducted a survey of leaders from the highest-performing Ohio charter schools. More than half noted that they “generally struggle” to find good teaching candidates, and that teacher pay is a main reason: 71 percent claimed that charter schools will always be at a serious disadvantage because they cannot afford to offer competitive salaries.
Low teacher pay is a direct result of the state’s inequitable charter school funding. Ohio charters, on average, receive 28 percent less funding than nearby school districts. The best way to address the issue is to fund charters equitably, and the governor and lawmakers are thankfully starting to work on that. But such a policy change is expensive and likely to be quite limited for the foreseeable future. In the meantime, state lawmakers should commit to leveling the recruitment playing field for charters as much as possible—and that means not restricting their hiring practices to those favored and dominated by traditional districts.
Attracting high-quality charter networks to Ohio
Ohio is home to top-notch homegrown charter networks like Breakthrough, Graham, KIPP, United Schools Network, and DECA. These schools do tremendous work for students and communities and are gradually expanding, but they only educate around 3 percent of the pupils in Ohio’s largest cities, and their forecasted growth won’t be enough to meet increasing demand for quality choice. Out-of-state networks with a résumé of excellence could help close the gap, but they won’t be tempted to open in Ohio unless the state becomes a more attractive market. Lawmakers could remedy this by funding charters more equitably and freeing them to recruit, hire, and train talented individuals who fit their missions. The schools would still be held to rigorous accountability measures, but these changes would make Ohio far more appealing to stellar nationwide networks.
To be clear, exempting charters from certification or licensure requirements wouldn’t result in a free for all. Teachers would still need college degrees, be subject to background checks, and, importantly, have to answer for the performance of their students on state tests and report cards. It merely maintains charters’ freedom to hire nontraditional teachers and assign them to a wider range of grade levels and subject areas. Skeptical lawmakers could even add safeguards, like requiring teachers to pass academic content licensure tests to prove their subject mastery. But limiting the flexibility of charter schools without hard evidence that it will benefit kids shouldn’t be an option.