BOISE -- Many feel Idaho's teacher shortage isn't getting any better, and in a number of school districts the applicant pool is shrinking.
Districts are forced to hire more and more unlicensed and uncertified teachers to fill Idaho classrooms. Because the shortage exists, Idaho has a system in place where teachers can get alternative authorizations - interim certificates that allow them to teach in Idaho classrooms and work toward standard renewable certification.
The number of alternative authorizations has grown steadily over the last few years. But even with that uptick, we still have a shortage across the state.
"A number of teachers leave the state to other states. Others simply leave the teaching profession altogether," Idaho Education Association President Kari Overall said. "Most neighboring states that touch Idaho pay anywhere from $7,000 to $10,000 more."
The chronic teacher shortage is a reality that's faced the Gem State for the last several years.
"It's a national issue. It's not just unique to Idaho but our challenges are unique because we're so rural in nature," Idaho Superintendent of Public Instruction Sherri Ybarra said, "We may be one of the smaller states in the nation but we are one of the states that is the largest for its rural nature."
"Rural districts struggle the most to fill their teaching positions. It's hard to entice educators to want to live in rural parts of the state. Also rural districts pay less than urban districts typically and so you've got that two-prong sword," Overall added.
But urban districts, too, feel reverberations in tough-to-fill positions.
Education leaders say there's a shortage in special education, career and technical education, math and science across the state.
Low pay is one of the biggest factors leading to the teacher shortage, educators and education leaders say.
"The starting pay for teachers even around the state is still struggling to reach what I would say is a livable wage," Kuna Middle School teacher Shelley Hopkins told KTVB. "When you work a job that is so difficult, so stressful, so important, and then you get compensated in ways that might make it difficult to live your life outside of school, I could see why it would be easier to go somewhere else."
Teachers are now getting pay raises because legislators implemented the career ladder salary law a couple years ago as a recommendation from Governor Otter's K-12 Task Force. Another task force recommendation that was implemented: 'leadership premium' payments, which go toward teachers who take on responsibilities such as leadership and mentoring roles, providing professional development for other teachers or co-workers, and teaching college level courses.
But some feel it's not enough.
"I'm thankful to the work of our legislators. They've helped us with the recruit side. It's not quite enough yet. The retention side hasn't really been addressed," Johnson said.
Along with pay, many educators say the perception surrounding teaching needs to change. They believe recruitment and retention issues are results of what they dub the 'teacher blaming era' in Idaho.
"We have to show people that Idaho respects and values its teachers and we have to pay teachers what they deserve to be paid," Overall said.
"We're in a place as a state that we're, I would say, desperate: finding somebody to fill a need but also looking for a highly qualified person to fill that need," Kuna School District Superintendent Wendy Johnson added.
In an effort to fill those needs, alternative authorizations are increasing. They're used when districts or charters must fill a teaching position with someone who doesn't have an appropriate teaching certificate.
"An alternative authorization is anytime a teacher did not go through a university prepared teacher preparation program. It means they went a different way, whether that's taking a test or completing requirements outside of a university program," Overall explained.
Ultimately, the goal is a standard teaching license.
The alternate routes vary: alternative authorizations include Content Specialist, Teacher to New certification/endorsement, Pupil Personnel Services, and Idaho State Board of Education Emergency Provisional. Other non-traditional routes include American Board for Certification of Teacher Excellence (ABCTE) and Teach for America (TFA). All routes - except Emergency provisional - require a Bachelor's degree.
- The Idaho State Department of Education defines Content Specialist as an "expedited route to certification for individuals who are highly and uniquely qualified in a subject area to teach in a district with an identified need for teachers in that area." This is typically for individuals who have industry experience or knowledge and background in the area they are applying to teach.
- Teacher to New is available for candidates that are currently certificated teachers in Idaho, but do not hold the endorsement for the specific subject/area of need. The State Department of Education explains the purpose of this alternative authorization is to allow school districts to request endorsement/certification when a position cannot be filled with someone who has the correct endorsement/certification.
- Pupil Personnel Services alternative authorization option is for Idaho school districts to request endorsement/certification when a position requiring the Pupil Personnel Services certificate cannot be filled with someone who has the correct endorsement/certification.
- The emergency provisional is a one-year certification a school district can request from the Idaho State Board of Education for a candidate who doesn't have a current Idaho certificate or credential but has strong content background, at least two years of college training and some educational pedagogy to fill an area of need that requires certification. The district has to provide proof that an emergency exists. If the person wants to continue teaching with a district/charter the following school year, they must be enrolled in an educator preparation program and be eligible for alternative authorization.
- According to the State Department of Education, the ABCTE process is the only computer-based alternate route to teacher certification. It is designed as an avenue to enter the teaching profession or add additional certificates/endorsements to an existing Idaho credential. One must complete the ABCTE testing and earn the ABCTE passport to Teaching Certificate, secure a teaching position in Idaho in the applicable area of certification/endorsement, use the certificate to apply with the State Department of Education for a three-year interim certificate, serve as teacher of record, complete the required two year mentor program within the three-year period and complete any additional requirements, if applicable, within that time frame. Prior to enrolling, the candidate must hold a Bachelor's degree.
Teachers on alternative authorizations have three years to work toward certification, their progress is now checked yearly, and their school districts are tasked with helping them put together a plan and oftentimes provide mentoring.
But in the interim, hundreds are in a classroom without much - if any - teaching experience.
"It doesn't mean they aren't doing a good job. It just means they haven't had the same level of preparation, say, as somebody who has gone through a program," Johnson told KTVB.
"I wouldn't say it's necessarily a determiner of success. However, I think there are definitely issues when you talk about putting in a teacher who is not ready to teach," Hopkins said. "It's a complicated job and so when you throw someone into that job who's not prepared that's like throwing someone into a pool who doesn't know how to swim... If you're not prepared there's a lot of teachers that drown and they don't come back to the profession and it hurts the entire education system when that happens. And it's a problem."
Lisa Colon Durham, Idaho State Department of Education Director of Certification and Professional Standards, says those on the content specialist route must take pedagogy credits within their first year.
"There's an idea of the focus of we need to get them to understand how to teach the practice of teaching, not just the content. Classroom management, those kind of situations," Colon Durham said. "I would say that that is a struggle because that first year they don't have that but the intent is to try to provide as much instruction that first year, along with support from the distict."
Twin Falls School District stands out as hiring 40 people last school year who either don't have a teaching license or are current teachers or administrators entering a different subject.
Data from the Idaho State Department of Education shows 931 alternative authorizations approved in the 2016-2017 school year. There are 19,117 individuals certified statewide; the percent of educators working with an alternative authorization was nearly five percent in 2016-2017.
In the 2013-2014 school year, there were 523 alternative authorizations, 19,566 individuals were certified statewide and the percentage of educators on alternative authorization was over 2.5 percent.
"They want to be able to hire appropriately certified individuals but at the same time they appreciate this alternative so that they can get people into the classroom so they don't have to cancel classes or courses," Colon Durham said. "I think every district would love to have a pool of candidates they can choose from."
Superintendent Ybarra doesn't feel alternative authorizations should be viewed in a negative light.
"I don't want to minimize the situation," Ybarra said. "Is the educator shortage real? Yes. Is it something we need to address? Yes. Is it a band-aid approach? Yes. But I want parents to feel safe and know that I think alternate authorization has gotten a negative reputation and people think maybe folks aren't held to the same standard. They absolutely are, and lots of times they're people that you already know."
Those on alternative authorizations are also required to get background checks.
"I think that people feel like we're just plucking anybody off the street and putting them in a classroom with children. That's not how that works. We've had this system in place, there's lots of folks looking at it. That's why we changed it to every year. We're checking on their progress," Ybarra added.
Superintendent Ybarra feels this issue highlights more people wanting to enter the profession and says the department's strategies to attract teachers are working.
But she and other educators in Idaho agree it's a band-aid approach to an underlying systemic problem.
"We believe it's a short-term fix for a long-term problem," Overall told KTVB. "Despite the number of alternative authorizations increasing in the state the last five years we still have a teacher shortage. So just lowering the bar and allowing unqualified individuals to enter classrooms isn't solving the problem. We have to look at different solutions."
"Students primarily are impacted, their families are impacted, the future is impacted," Johnson added.
The Idaho State Board of Education organized a 'teacher pipeline' work group tasked to come up with ways to recruit and retain teachers and make it easier for those who don't go through traditional university teacher preparation programs to get certified. The group is expected to present recommendations to legislators soon.
Alternate authorizations are used in increasing numbers in small, rural Idaho school districts but State Department of Education data shows the West Ada School District has a significant amount too.
If you want to know the number of teachers in your kid's school district, and in which subject area, visit this link.