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A month after state education leaders created a new path to a teaching license, a dozen Democratic legislators are giving the route a failing grade.
Utah's House Democrats say the June policy allowing more people without teaching degrees to lead Utah's K-12 students will fill classrooms with "unprepared adults" and will "continue to damage current teacher morale."
Rep. Joel Briscoe, D-Salt Lake City, joined his colleagues in signing a letter with those points and addressing it to state School Board Chairman David Crandall. Briscoe, a former Bountiful High School teacher of 26 years, handed the note to secretary Lorraine Austin Thursday afternoon at the board's Salt Lake City office.
The lawmakers in the letter asked the board to hold a public hearing on the policy, which requires prospective teachers to pass a subject-area test, complete ethics training, clear a background check and receive mentoring from a veteran teacher over a three-year period.
The Democrats called for "all those involved" in public education to receive a chance to weigh in.
In June, board members and legislators said the new pathway could help encourage more people to become teachers and, in turn, help solve a teacher shortfall in the state. Two in five Utah teachers leave the profession in a five-year window, as a state analysis pointed out last month.
But the fix is shortsighted, Briscoe said outside the state office Thursday.
"We're lowering the standards for teachers," he said, "when we're trying to raise standards for students."
Not so, say those who approved the policy. Board member Leslie Castle believes the change provides more oversight, not less, to the current policy.
"This is an attempt to tighten it up," Castle said.
There have long been workarounds for those who want to teach but don't have an education degree, Castle said, including a program that allows them to apprentice for six years after demonstrating basic competency, but not a command, of any one subject.
The new option requires applicants to prove their mastery before entering the classroom, Castle said. It limits applicants to three years of practice teaching and requires mentoring.
"We're not trying to undo teaching as we know it," Castle said.
The Utah Education Association sees it differently.
"Allowing an underprepared, underqualified teacher to 'learn on the job' puts student learning at risk," the state's largest teacher organization says in a statement on its website.
The House Democrats agreed, stressing in their letter that being a good teacher requires more than subject knowledge.
The group also is considering a proposal to force increases in teacher pay in the 2017 Legislature, Briscoe said Thursday, though no bill has been filed.
Nationally, the median annual wage for kindergarten and elementary school teachers was $54,550 in May 2015, according to the most recent figures from the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. In Utah, the pay was $34,760 for inexperienced teachers, with a median of $51,770 for all elementary instructors, according to 2014 data from the Department of Workforce Services, the most recent figures available.
School board member Stan Lockhart cautions against the type of legislation Briscoe envisions, at least for now. Lockhart wants the state to take what he called a "strategic deep dive" into teachers' salaries.
"We need to analyze why we pay teachers what we pay," Lockhart said.
For example, he said, the Legislature could create a task force to bore into the specifics and discuss creating additional earmarks for education though he and his board colleagues haven't discussed that option yet.
And researching where school district budgets could be tightened or restructured to save money, he said, is key.
The new alternative, Lockhart maintains, is one piece of a larger board initiative to recruit and retain instructors, not a one-time fix.
"This is not the answer in and of itself," Lockhart said. "I think there's been a little bit of overreaction."
It's too early to say what the next steps in addressing Utah's teacher shortfall will be, Lockhart said, but the board will continue to consider new options.
Thursday's request for a hearing was the third to come in to the board. The Utah Association of Math Teacher Educators and the Utah Foreign Language Association also expressed concern and asked for a public opportunity to weigh in. The hearing could be scheduled for later this month, Wheeler said, and will take place before Thursday, Aug. 4.