OKLAHOMA CITY — In response to Oklahoma’s continued teacher shortage, lawmakers passed a measure that no longer requires educators to have a college degree in order to teach permanently in public schools.

All a prospective educator needs now is a high school diploma and “distinguished qualifications” in their field to make them eligible to teach full time in 1-12 classrooms. Those individuals don’t have to work toward a teaching certificate or take college classes, and legislators gave local districts latitude to determine what meets the “distinguished qualifications” threshold.

Supporters claim the law will make it easier for doctors, lawyers and other trained professionals to enter the teacher pipeline, but critics say those aren’t the people applying to teach. Public school watchdogs say they’re hearing of superintendents and school boards so desperate that they’re hiring people with high school diplomas.

Bryan Duke, interim dean at the University of Central Oklahoma’s college of education, said while the so-called adjunct teachers have previously been permitted, until this year lawmakers limited how long they could be in a classroom.

He said lawmakers promised the changes would draw highly-trained professionals, but based on conversations with district leaders, he said “that is not what we’re seeing.”

“We’ll just say that I’m not aware of those qualifications,” Duke said. “And, I certainly doubt that most folks would have those qualifications.”

The State Department of Education reported that Oklahoma districts have already hired 370 non-certified adjunct teachers for full-time positions since the new law took effect July 1. Where they’re working and their qualifications were not clear.

State Rep. Kyle Hilbert, R-Bristow, the House author, said the bill “epitomizes local control” because school boards get to determine who is qualified. He does not dispute the law technically requires only a high school diploma, but questioned whether anyone is “abusing it.”

He said Oklahoma has a teacher shortage, and legislators must do everything they can to give districts as many options as possible to create the best learning environment for children.

“I would push back on anyone that says that just because someone doesn’t have some letters next to their name that they’re less intelligent than someone else,” Hilbert said. “Some of the smartest people I know, their highest level of education is high school. And if they’ve got a career of experience and excellence in their field, perhaps they do have some expertise that they can bring.”

State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister, though, appeared stunned when she learned during an interview that lawmakers had stripped the college degree requirement for permanent teachers. She whispered “Oh my God!” under her breath.

She called the change “worrisome,” and said Oklahoma parents expect and deserve a college-educated teacher for their child.

Educating is a science, and students benefit from college-trained graduates who have the practice and expertise in helping students lift outcomes, particularly in reading, she said.

“Overall, we shouldn’t be watering down standards in something so very important individually for students and for our collective workforce in the state,” Hofmeister said. “I am worried that we have pushed legislation to a place where it is answering a temporary emergency need that is actually creating a standard of normalcy, and that is not good for our state.”

Oklahoma is already grappling with disappointing student outcomes compared to other states. Recent data from the National Assessment of Education Progress showed Oklahoma student scores in reading and math dropped more than most other states during the pandemic, according an October analysis from Oklahoma Watch.

Hofmeister said when someone enters school having previously owned a Hallmark store, they don’t have the experience and training to step into a second grade class.

“There are some who really seem to think that what is happening in school is a lot of babysitting,” Hofmeister said. “And it’s not. Kids don’t get back these days. They need to be spent with those who have the expertise to deliver an excellent education, and we have to do more.”

Kevin Kumashiro, an education policy expert, said Oklahoma is the first state he’s heard of that requires no college education. He said in an email that there is a nationwide trend to expand eligibility for teaching to individuals who have not completed college or a teacher-preparation program, but other states still require at least some college education.

Arizona, for instance, requires teachers only have a high school diploma, but they must be enrolled in college. Idaho requires a college degree for most educators, but allows work experience to substitute for people interested in teaching CareerTech-related programs. Florida, meanwhile, has expanded its “Troops to Teaching” program by requiring teachers have about two years of college plus four years of military service, Kumashiro said.

“The teacher-shortage crisis is fueling such moves to require less and less preparation in order to become a teacher,” he said.

State Sen. Jessica Garvin, R-Duncan, who authored the law, said her bill was never intended to address Oklahoma’s teacher shortage, and argued that districts have theoretically been able to hire high school graduates even before her law eliminated restrictions on the number of hours adjuncts could teach.

A mother of two public school children, Garvin said it’s “extremely frustrating” that people are insisting her bill lessens teaching requirements.

“If anything, in my opinion this increases or enhances the requirements,” Garvin said.

She said she doesn’t believe her bill takes away the college-degree requirement, but said Oklahoma needs to have a broader conversation about who would be a good fit in public schools. She said there should be many paths to the classroom and someone who brings many years of real-world experience, but no college education, could be a better educator than someone just starting out.

“I’m not saying that this makes it OK for people to lessen any sort of stipulations that they would tend to hire someone with in the event that they needed a teacher, but what I am saying is we’ve got to get away from this mentality that the only way you can have a successful career is to go to college because that’s not true,” Garvin said.

She said she’s heard from a number of school districts that have told her they’re using her law to hire people with college degrees, but who hold no teaching certification. She said she doesn’t know any school districts that have changed their requirements “to not hire someone with a bachelor’s degree.”

“That’s just a blatant lie,” Garvin said. “That’s very misleading. … And, quite frankly, if a school district is hiring someone who’s not qualified to be in a classroom then they need to be voted out of the school board or the superintendent needs to be fired. I mean that’s just asinine.”

Katherine Bishop, president of the Oklahoma Education Association, said she can’t even think of a word to illustrate how “highly disappointed” she is with the new law.

She said lawmakers never revealed that the law would allow the permanent hiring of unprepared and “unqualified teachers” with only high school degrees. They claimed that the law was targeted at professionals with college degrees who couldn’t pass the teaching certification test.

“I am offended as a professional that we would even think that this was OK,” Bishop said. “Our students, their education, deserve better than that. And our taxpayers should be appalled, to be honest with you, that a person that just graduated high school could then be a teacher.”

Bishop called the law “a slap” in the face to educators who worked hard to get certified and said the law is an example of how not to address a teacher shortage.

The Professional Oklahoma Educators, which also advocates for teachers, and the Oklahoma State School Boards Association did not respond to requests for comment.

“School unions criticize any legislation or policy that threatens their monopoly over kids,” said Kate Vesper, a spokeswoman for Gov. Kevin Stitt, in an email.

Stitt and lawmakers will continue “to deliver new and innovative ways” to make it easier to recruit and retain more teachers, she said, and included the law as an example of Stitt’s efforts to do that.

“Getting a four-year degree at a university should not be the only route to become a teacher,” she said.

The new law makes it easier for industry professionals such as farmers, ranchers, accountants, pilots and bankers to teach, she said.

Ryan Walters, Oklahoma’s secretary of education and soon-to-be state superintendent, said Oklahomans have talked about the desire to get more teachers into the classroom.

He said the law provides more options, more competition and a broader applicant pool for school districts. It also provides more pathways for talented people to come into the classroom. He said there are Fortune 500 CEOs who never graduated from college.

“I don’t think that a sheet of paper necessarily makes them a better teacher,” Walters said. “Having our certificate doesn’t magically make you a better teacher. There’s real life experiences that are important in being an effective teacher in the classroom.”

Janelle Stecklein covers the Oklahoma Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites. Reach her at jstecklein@cnhinews.com.

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