This article appeared in the Winter 2017-18 edition of The Classroom Teacher.

In a prime example of a manufactured crisis that needn’t exist, many school districts are claiming exemption from state certification requirements for career and technical education teachers as part of their District of Innovation plans. This is happening even though a law was passed in 2015 broadening school district flexibility to hire non-certified CTE teachers under school district teaching permits in response to district concerns about shortages of certified CTE teachers. Under that law, Texas Education Code Section 21.055 (d-1), a school district can hire a non-degreed person to teach non-core academic career and technical education courses on a school district teaching permit based on qualifications certified by the superintendent, including demonstrated subject matter expertise and relevant licensure. In doing so, the school district must notify the commissioner of education of the person’s qualifications and ensure the person undergoes at least 20 hours of classroom management training.

So why would so many districts seek exemption from CTE teacher certification if the law already contains a built-in mechanism to hire non-certified CTE teachers? Perhaps districts are simply unaware of the law. Alternatively, a more disturbing explanation might be that such districts do not want to notify the commissioner of the person’s qualifications and require the person to receive at least 20 hours of classroom management training. 

These very minimal requirements are the least a district can do to ensure a semblance of quality instruction for students, and to skirt them is one more way of undermining the value of teacher certification. That’s why it is incumbent upon teachers in a district considering exemption from CTE teacher certification requirements to raise awareness of the district’s existing abilities under current law and to highlight the importance of classroom management training for these individuals.

One sub-issue that may be at play is that a district may want to hire non-certified CTE teachers to teach core academic courses. State law requires the State Board of Education to identify CTE courses that can count for high school credit and that can be substituted for required high school math and science courses. Accordingly, the SBOE has routinely expanded the list of eligible CTE courses. Examples include digital electronics, engineering math, and robotics II (for math); and anatomy and physiology, forensic science, and principles of technology (for science).

Again, Section 21.055 already allows districts to hire non-certified CTE teachers to teach core academic courses on a school district teaching permit. In those cases, the person must hold a bachelor’s degree and the district must receive approval from the commissioner. (Pending commissioner approval, the person can teach the classes).  

One might wonder if it is difficult to receive commissioner approval. According to information provided by TEA earlier this year, in 2014, 75 applications were received from districts and 63 were approved, with four withdrawn and eight pending. Additionally, the law provides that if the commissioner does not act on the application within 30 days of receipt, the district can issue a permit and the person may teach the classes.

TCTA is not a fan of school district teaching permits, as they represent part of a broader trend of circumventing teacher certification, thus demeaning the value of teaching as a profession. However, the law at least ensures that uncertified individuals serving as teachers get some basic classroom management training and that the commissioner is notified of such permits so there is state-level data available for scrutiny to ensure students are not being short-changed in their instruction.  

A greater concern is the proliferation of school districts exempting themselves from CTE teacher certification requirements as Districts of Innovation. In fact, the exemption from teacher certification in general is the second-most popular exemption among DOI plans. The most recent data from TEA in November 2017 revealed 581 districts (roughly 89% of DOIs) claim exemption from the law requiring teachers to be certified. It probably did not help that TEA put teacher certification atop a list of examples of allowable exemptions in its Overview of Districts of Innovation powerpoint presentation.

Although TEA does not routinely collect data on the specific types of certification exemptions sought by Districts of Innovation, it is clear from news reports, public testimony and information from TCTA members that CTE teacher certification exemption is prevalent.

A typical example of rationale in District of Innovation plans for CTE teacher certification exemptions is:

“In addition, this exemption will afford the district the flexibility to hire professionals in certain trades and vocations to teach the crafts of those trades and vocations (such as welding, fine arts, etc.) in career and technical/STEAM courses if certified teachers are not available to teach those courses.”         

The same wording can be found in multiple DOI plans. This duplication, and the lack of demonstration that these exemptions will enable any innovation, point to a troubling sign that many districts are more interested in availing themselves of exemptions from state laws rather than in truly innovating. In fact, this motive was confirmed by an administrator in a Dec. 31, 2016, Waco Tribune article in which the Midway ISD superintendent said, “A District of Innovation doesn’t necessarily describe to me what we’re doing. I don’t see what we’re looking at as innovative. I see it more as a district requesting flexibility more than innovation.”

If this really is the prevailing purpose behind districts pursuing innovation status, teachers must be vigilant about what kinds of exemptions their districts are exploring, and weigh in/provide information in order to avoid wholesale and unnecessary exemptions from meaningful state laws. TCTA stands ready to help members who need more information or assistance in impacting their local District of Innovation plan.

TOP 5 exemptions*

# Statute Description # of Districts Exempting % of Districts Exempting % of Statutes Being Exempted
1 25.0811 first day of instruction 649 99.39% 13.57%
2 21.003 certification required 581 88.97% 12.15%
3 21.102 probationary contracts 321 49.16% 6.71%
4 25.112 class size 296 45.33% 6.19%
5 25.113 notice of class size 246 37.67% 5.14%
*Data from TEA as of November 8, 2017.

House Bill 1842 from the 2015 session provided for a new program allowing any school district rated at least “acceptable” to exempt itself as a “District of Innovation” from numerous provisions of the Education Code, including student, parent and teacher rights and benefits. TCTA vigorously opposed the legislation, arguing that it was not evidence-based; threatened to undermine key statutory provisions providing a baseline of protections for teachers, parents and students; and was too broadly available to school districts that were mediocre in performance (about 95% of school districts in Texas earned an acceptable rating in 2016).

Proponents of the concept argued that the playing field should be leveled between traditional school districts and charter schools, which have freedom from many provisions of the Education Code (although evidence shows that overall, charter school performance lags behind traditional public school performance).