Governor wants to strip back rules that make it complicated to become a teacher

Rachel Leingang//February 24, 2017

Governor wants to strip back rules that make it complicated to become a teacher

Rachel Leingang//February 24, 2017


Four weeks into the 2016 school year, more than 2,000 teacher positions in Arizona were still unfilled.

One way lawmakers and Gov. Doug Ducey want to address the problem: Make it easier to become a teacher.

Several bills moving through the Arizona Legislature would do just that, by providing alternative ways to certify teachers, allowing reciprocity for teachers certified in other states and letting experienced teachers whose certification has lapsed come back into the classroom.

But critics of plans to ease teacher certification say it’s a misguided attempt to solve a deepening teacher shortage, and it will weaken the profession. The bigger problems, they say, are low pay and a lack of support to succeed in the classroom.

Joe Thomas

“The problem really is, it’s a red herring right now,” said Joe Thomas, head of the Arizona Education Association, the teachers’ union. “Lowering certification just to let everybody in the classroom, there’s not a single parent that wants that, that would support that.”

A survey of 130 school districts by the Arizona School Personnel Administrators Association found 8,190 teacher positions that needed to be filled ahead of the 2016 school year. Of those, 2,041 remained vacant one month after kids returned to the classroom. And 1,831 were filled by people who didn’t meet standard teacher requirements. That means they used alternative certifications, were waiting to be certified or were in the U.S. on a visa.

Some vacancies were filled by long-term substitute teachers or non-teaching staffers at schools, the survey found. Others filled vacancies by creating multi-grade classrooms, adding to class sizes or eliminating planning periods for existing teachers.

This session’s bills are part of a larger push, announced by Ducey in his State of the State address, to make it more streamlined for people who didn’t take a traditional route to teaching to get into schools.

The governor thinks reforming the certification process isn’t something that will be accomplished in one legislative session, his spokesman, Daniel Scarpinato, said. It’s a long-term project that should involve stakeholders in the education community, the Legislature and universities, he said.

Gov. Doug Ducey

“(Ducey’s) overall goal is that quality people who want to get into the classroom and teach are able to do so in a way that is less bureaucratic and that allows them to get in without getting discouraged,” Scarpinato said.

That’s one thing most sides of the teacher certification debate seem to agree on: Changing the process is going to be a long-term endeavor.

“This issue of certification has been around awhile, so it’s not surprising that it’s still here,” said Chris Kotterman, director of governmental relations at the Arizona School Boards Association. “But on the flipside, this issue of certification has been around awhile and we’re still having teaching retention problems. There’s no silver bullet here.”

The Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry, a heavy hitter at the Capitol, lists three bills making teacher certification easier as part of its legislative priorities this session. The chamber’s  education group, A for Arizona, said the changes contemplated by these bills will help address the teacher shortage.

But it’s not a simple process. Lisa Graham Keegan, A for Arizona’s director and a former state superintendent of public instruction, said new generations of people don’t want to stay in one career for their entire lives. She said the regulatory structure needs to adapt to this fact and create more flexibility for those without traditional teacher education.

Lisa Graham Keegan
Lisa Graham Keegan

“Right now there’s just some silly regulatory barrier that’s got to come down, or we’re not going to be able to get the people that we know we could get quickly enough, because they’ve got a lot of options at this point,” she said.

Now, most teachers in Arizona schools come to the classroom through a traditional teacher certification process. It requires a person who wants to teach to get a bachelor’s degree, obtain a fingerprint clearance card, complete a teacher preparation program or do student teaching and education courses, pass exams on professional knowledge and their specialty area, and take classes on the U.S. and Arizona constitutions.


In Ducey’s State of the State address, he used the example of former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor when discussing “outdated rules” that stand in the way of people who want to teach.

Despite all of O’Connor’s bonafides, including her status as the first female justice and the fact that she has a law school named after her at Arizona State University, she wouldn’t be able to teach in an Arizona public school

“After her retirement in 2005, if she had wanted to teach civics in an Arizona high school classroom, she would have been deemed unqualified by the system,” Ducey said.

He said the trust should be put in local school boards, superintendents and principals to make hiring decisions for their schools without obstacles.

But, Thomas and Kotterman told the Arizona Capitol Times, O’Connor would be able to teach in short order if she wanted to. She could get a teaching intern certificate, which requires a person to have a bachelor’s degree, pass a test in their area of expertise and go through a background check. If the person has a master’s degree in a specific subject area, they don’t need to pass the subject knowledge exam. Then, while running a classroom, the person would work on courses that show them how to teach.

“I’m not trying to say he’s wrong,” Thomas said. “I understand the usage of Sandra Day O’Connor because she’s an Arizona hero, but yeah, she could teach in the classroom tomorrow. And she’d probably be fantastic.”

O’Connor would also have to be enrolled in an alternative certification or education preparation program approved by the State Board of Education. The prep programs teach teachers how to teach, including how to manage a classroom and set up a curriculum.

People with a teaching intern certificate can run their own classrooms as soon as their certification is approved and can remain a teaching intern for up to two years. After that, they have to pass a professional knowledge exam and prove they completed an educator prep program in order to get a provisional teaching certificate.

The fact that teachers are certified is a good thing, Kotterman said. Some may see teacher certification as burdensome, but teaching requires a skillset beyond just expertise in a subject area, he said. It’s an unforgiving and specific job to do, and that requires the proper preparation in educating itself, as well as mentorship while in the classroom, he said.

“It is equal parts academic knowledge and art form to do it and do it well,” he said.

But Keegan said the intern certification includes regulations that are “heavier than you would hope,” and the process needs to be simplified. Alternative pathways like the intern certificate are too slow, she said. If people aren’t traditionally trained as teachers through education courses at a university, she said the other ways to get to the classroom include more burdens than necessary.

“It tends to play out as barriers and regulation,” Keegan said.

Two of the bills moving through the Legislature could help O’Connor and others become a fully credentialed teacher sooner, as they allow schools to set up their own certification programs and would create a simpler alternative certification through the Department of Education.


Several bills want to make alternative pathways to teaching outside of a traditional route through a teachers’ college and background in education courses more accessible to more people.

Sylvia Allen
Sylvia Allen

SB1039, sponsored by Republican Sen. Sylvia Allen of Snowflake, would let school districts set up their own certification process for teachers, as long as a person has at least a bachelor’s degree and passes a fingerprint clearance. The State Board of Education would need to approve the alternative certification. The school district has to make sure the teacher’s students have made satisfactory progress, and the teacher can’t get a full certificate until they prove 80 percent of their students are performing at grade level after one year.

During a committee hearing in January, Allen said the bill promotes innovation and is a free-market approach to teacher certification. Now, state statutes permit schools to become alternative providers of certification, but SB1039 sets up rules for how the process will work, she said.

“We’re having such a problem in rural Arizona and in some areas like math, physics teachers, special education. There are just so many areas where districts and charters are having a difficult time filling those positions,” Allen said during the Senate Education Committee hearing on January 19.

While debating the bill in committee, Democratic Sen. Catherine Miranda of Phoenix said it would open up a “huge can of worms” and is an “insult to our process” of certifying teachers because it could deprofessionalize teaching.

Keegan said schools want to use alternative pathways for teachers, but the processes now are too slow to be helpful. She said SB1039 will help with the speed of certification and will maintain professional standards for teachers because local school boards and principals will have oversight.

“We’re trying to level the playing field to get people into the classrooms,” she said.

State schools chief Diane Douglas tells members of the House Education Committee on Wednesday they need to be sure there is a steady and predictable flow of money to public schools if the state is to attract and retain the teachers it needs. (Capitol Media Services photo by Howard Fischer)
State schools chief Diane Douglas (Capitol Media Services photo by Howard Fischer)

But Superintendent of Public Instruction Diane Douglas has some “serious concerns” with SB1039, her spokesman Stefan Swiat said. He said Douglas wants to maintain the integrity of the certification process, but she understands there may be a need for some streamlining.

“She believes in streamlining all processes, just not at the expense of kids in the classrooms and not at the expense of having teachers imminently qualified,” he said.

Ducey generally wants to see more local control in the teacher certification process, Scarpinato said. Principals, school boards and superintendents are important parts of a school’s success, so they should be making calls on how best to train and mentor people who enter teaching from nontraditional paths, he said.

“The governor’s view is that these are professionals who understand education, and they’re not going to put someone in the classroom that isn’t going to be a good teacher. If someone isn’t performing, they’re going to make a change,” Scarpinato said.

But Thomas said what’s keeping people out of teaching isn’t a teacher certification process that’s too cumbersome. The state has plenty of people with teacher certificates who aren’t working in classrooms, and there are options for alternative pathways for those who didn’t get an education degree, he said.

The real problem, he said, is low teacher pay and large class sizes. Thomas said SB1039 lowers standards for teachers, which he claims is the wrong direction for a state that’s struggling to keep educators in the classroom.

“To attract and retain teachers, we need better pay, we need better working conditions, and that’s what Arizona has got to focus on, not lowering certification so you can bring anybody into the classroom. You show me the parent that thinks that’s a good idea, and I’ll be amazed,” Thomas said.

Kotterman said his organization is officially neutral on SB1039, but he liked the bill better as printed, when it only applied to schools that got A or B letter grades. An amendment passed in the Senate Education Committee expanded the alternative certification to any school.

The bill could create a patchwork of teacher regulations, as schools districts throughout the state start adopting their own programs, he said. Having the state board in charge of overseeing the process and approving certification alternatives is critical, and the bill does that, he said.

SB1039 passed the Senate Education Committee on a 4-3 vote and awaits a vote of the full Senate.


SB1042, also sponsored by Allen, will require the State Board of Education to come up with rules for alternative teacher certifications that are “substantially different” and less restrictive than traditional teacher certification. It would allow for reciprocity, meaning teachers from other states would get a standard teaching certificate in Arizona as long as they take classes on the U.S. and state constitutions within one year. It also requires certification to last 12 years instead of the current six years.

Keegan said she has supported reciprocity for a long time since teachers from other states have already gone through a “pretty onerous” process in order to become educators. She said there’s “absolutely zero evidence” that reciprocity would create any sort of decreased quality for schools. Plus, she noted, principals always have the power to hire or fire teachers.

Swiat said Douglas understands the intent of the bill, but she wants to make sure teachers who come here from other states are certified to the same level as Arizona teachers.

Kotterman said the reciprocity piece of SB1042 is a step in the right direction, but he thinks the requirement to adopt alternative teacher preparation rules is a swipe at the State Board of Education.

“It should be up to the state board on how that works ideally. This is sort of forcing their hands,” he said.

SB1042 passed the Senate on a 17-13 vote and now awaits action in the House.

SB1057, sponsored by Republican Sen. Gail Griffin of Hereford, would allow teachers with at least 10 years of experience whose certification lapsed to renew their certification within two years without any additional requirements.

Griffin told the Education Committee the idea was brought to her by an experienced teacher whose certification lapsed while being treated for cancer. The bill has wide support, and it passed the Senate on a 29-1 vote.

Thomas said he supports the idea behind the bill, but wants to see a sunset provision inserted. If SB1057 is truly designed to address the teacher shortage by getting experienced teachers who stopped teaching back into the profession, it should be a temporary need, he said.

If the bill doesn’t have an end date, he said, that means lawmakers “expect this crisis to last forever.”


But if lawmakers expect changes in certification to lead to flood of new teachers, Thomas said they are mistaken. The state and the profession should always be assessing the most appropriate ways to certify teachers and make sure it’s not too easy or too hard, he said.

“The problem is that people are looking at it right now as if it’s the solution to end our teacher crisis, and it’s not,” he said.

Ducey’s office recognizes streamlining certification isn’t a cure-all, Scarpinato said. He said several initiatives from the Governor’s Office, including small bonuses for people in low-income schools and a 0.4 percent raise annually for teachers, should help. Teacher certification is one piece, and changing the rules may allow people who are considering teaching but don’t have the standard background to see a path into the classroom, he said.

“This alone won’t solve the teacher shortage. It’s in conjunction with really a whole host of things,” Scarpinato said.

While pay and classroom support definitely play into the teacher shortage, Keegan said finding a proper cultural fit is often a major priority for potential teachers and their prospective schools. Education is often a place where you “can’t innovate,” she said.

“Any barrier that you throw up to their ability to get with the school they want to be with … we’re going to lose them,” she said.

The certification process is at times overly bureaucratic and too traditional, and there are certainly ways to make it less burdensome, Kotterman conceded. But throwing the doors open to anyone with a bachelor’s degree because there’s a teacher shortage misses the point, he said.

“People don’t want to be teachers because they don’t get treated very well, they don’t get paid very well, and it’s a hard job. That’s really it,” Kotterman said.