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In the States: A Look at the Southern Region

The new “In the States” feature by Kaitlyn Brennan is a weekly update to keep members informed on state-level activities impacting the education and educator preparation community.

States and districts around the country continue to scramble to fill teaching positions with fully certified, profession ready educators. A recent analysis from the  Southern Regional Education Board of 2019-20 data in 11 states found roughly 4% of teachers — which could be up to 56,000 educators — were uncertified or teaching with an emergency certification. By 2030, the number of uncertified teachers or those teaching with an emergency certification is expected to balloon. The Southern Regional Education Boards projects that upwards of 16 million K-12 students in the Southern region of the country could be taught by an unprepared or inexperienced teacher. While the pandemic certainly exacerbated the problem, it is not new and has steadily gotten worse over the last decade. For example, in Texas school districts’ reliance on uncertified new hires increased significantly over the last decade. In the 2011-12 school year, fewer than 7% of the state’s new teachers — roughly 1,600 — didn’t have a certification. By last year, about 8,400 of the state’s nearly 43,000 new hires were uncertified.

In Alabama, nearly 2,000 of the state’s 47,500 teachers — 4% — didn’t hold a full certificate in 2020-21, the most recent year for which data is available. That’s double the state’s reliance on such educators from five years earlier. An additional 7% of Alabama teachers teach in classrooms and content areas outside of their certification fields, with the highest percentages in rural areas with high rates of poverty. Prior to 2019, an emergency certificate in Alabama could only be used for one year. But after a teacher shortage task force recommended changes, lawmakers changed to a two-year certification and gave educators the option to extend an additional two years. The exclusion against using such certificates in elementary school was lifted, too. Since then, the number of teachers holding emergency certificates increased dramatically across the state but disproportionally impacts those living  in rural, urban, and low-income areas. To put this into content, the highest percentage of uncertified teachers, teaching on an emergency licensure in Alabama during the 2020-21 school year was in rural Lowndes County in an elementary school where seven of 16 teachers — 42% of the teaching force — had an emergency certification.

Earlier this month, in response to the states lowering the standards for entry into the profession, the U.S. Department of Education’s (Department) Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) sent a memo to state directors of special education focused on the personnel qualifications under Part B of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

In the memo, OSEP Director, Valerie Williams writes:

“The U.S. Department of Education’s (Department) Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) is committed to supporting States in the provision of a free appropriate public education (FAPE) to all children with disabilities. FAPE includes the provision of special education and related services that meet the requirements of IDEA Part B, which includes ensuring that special education teachers and related services providers are appropriately and adequately prepared and trained. This memo is intended to clarify States’ obligations regarding the IDEA Part B requirements related to personnel qualifications and alternate certifications. Based on media reports and discussions with States and advocates, OSEP is aware that some States currently have policies and procedures in place that may not be consistent with IDEA requirements. OSEP also recognizes that States are facing many challenges caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, including the impact it has had on exacerbating the shortage of special education teachers and related services providers across the country. Thus, OSEP believes it is critical to ensure that State educational agencies (SEAs) fully understand the IDEA requirements related to personnel qualifications and alternate certifications and are aware of available resources to support their efforts to meet them.”

Even prior to the pandemic, over 25,000 special education teaching positions were filled by individuals who were not fully qualified for those positions. In the state of Nevada 20.44% of those serving as special education teachers were not fully qualified; in Louisiana 18% and in Oklahoma 15% were not fully qualified; in Texas 5,800 individuals serving as special education teachers were not fully qualified to do so. 

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