New law trusts charter schools on teacher hiring

Indiana lawmakers intended to clear up confusion about charter-school teacher licensing when they approved House Enrolled Act 1382. They did that, but they also opened the door for charter schools to hire some teachers with no requirements whatsoever.

The new law says 90 percent of the teachers employed by a charter school must have or be in the process of obtaining any Indiana teaching license or permit. That includes a so-called charter school license, a lower bar than the standard license required to teach in a regular public school. It could also include a substitute teaching permit; you can get one if you’re at least 18 and have finished high school.

For up to 10 percent of teachers in a charter school, however, the legislation did away with any requirements at all. They don’t need a teaching license, a college degree or even a high school diploma.

Rep. Robert Behning, author of HEA 1382 and chair of the House Education Committee, said it’s appropriate to give charter schools more hiring flexibility in exchange for being held to higher expectations. He doesn’t think they will hire unqualified teachers.

“The 10 percent of teachers could be qualified professionals who might be considered experts in their field, and who are able to work in a classroom, but who do not currently have a license to teach,” he said in an email response to questions. “Ultimately, staffing decisions fall on the school administrators, who I believe will hire an educator they believe best fits the needs of their students.”

HEA 1382 also included language aimed at strengthening accountability for charter schools. The Indiana State Teachers Association supported some of those changes but strongly opposed lowering expectations for teachers in charter schools.

“We’ve already got all this flexibility for charter schools, and this is more loosening of the requirements,” the ISTA’s John O’Neal said. “We’re telling people, basically, you can teach in a charter school with less preparation and lower standards. It’s not a wise decision.”

Before HEA 1382, the law on charter-school teacher licensing was confusing to say the least. Some advocates thought it allowed for 90 percent of the teachers in a charter school to hold any kind of license, including the charter school license. But the Indiana Department of Education, which regulates teacher licensing, interpreted the law to require 90 percent of the teachers in a charter school to hold a standard teacher’s license, the kind that would let them teach in a public school district.

You can qualify for a charter school license if you graduate from college with at least a B average or if you graduate from college and pass a teaching test. You also must be certified to perform CPR, AED and the Heimlich maneuver and be trained in suicide prevention.

HEA 1382 says 90 percent of the teachers in a charter school must have or be in the process of obtaining “any license or permit” included in the section of state law that governs teachers licensing. Adam Baker, spokesman for the Indiana Department of Education, pointed out that the section includes permit requirements for substitute teachers. Could a charter school staff itself with 18-year-old subs?

That would probably be a stretch. Indiana also has an administrative rule, approved by the State Board of Education, that says a school can employ a substitute only if a licensed teacher is not available. But the rule doesn’t define “available.” You can imagine someone hiring long-term subs as a fallback option if licensed teachers are hard to find.

Behning and James Betley, executive director of the Indiana Charter School Board, said traditional school districts have the same opportunity as charter schools to make extensive use of substitute teachers. Ultimately, they said, it’s up to school administrators, school boards and charter school authorizers to make sure hiring flexibility isn’t abused.

“If a charter school hires a bunch of teachers who don’t know what they’re doing, they’re going to lose their charter,” said Betley, whose board authorizes 22 charter schools.

Charter schools are designed to have more flexibility and autonomy than public schools, which is supposed to allow them to experiment with different practices. In some states that includes hiring unlicensed teachers and in other states it doesn’t, according to the Education Commission of the States.

The original Indiana charter school law, passed by the legislature in 2001, required all teachers in charter schools to hold a standard Indiana teaching license. That was part of a compromise needed to win support from teachers’ unions and the Indiana House, then controlled by Democrats.

Sixteen years later, unions have been weakened, Republicans have supermajorities in the Senate and the House, and Indiana has swung to the opposite extreme on the charter-school flexibility continuum.

 

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