SALT LAKE CITY — Utah public schools facing a teacher shortage can now hire people without teaching licenses or experience after the State Board of Education voted unanimously to allow the new policy to take effect Friday.
Utah has long had a program that let people with bachelor’s degrees get teaching jobs before they were licensed, but the new policy change lets them get a license right away and drops a requirement that unlicensed teachers take college teacher-training courses.
No school is required to hire unlicensed educators under the new policy, but the change could also help combat a teacher shortage that’s left half of Utah schools with open teaching positions on the first day of school, according to district surveys. Utah colleges are turning out fewer teachers even as the number of students grows.
The state’s student body now stands at more than 640,000 students, up 10 percent over the last five years. Enrollment in collegiate teacher-training programs has dropped by about a third over the last decade.
Those hired without licenses or without taking the courses must be mentored and overseen for three years by licensed, supervising teachers.
Supporters say the program will offer schools a bigger talent pool, but critics contended teachers need experience and teaching training to be effective with students and that the new policy will give licensed teachers more work.
Public school teachers and others voiced their concerns at an overflowing public hearing last month. But the State Board of Education said the change was needed because of a severe teacher shortage.
The Board plans on considering minor amendments to tweak the policy at its next meeting, but board members said Friday that they wanted to get the rule in place ahead of the looming new school year.
Board member Linda Hansen said the shortage is so severe that a rural high school in the area she represents that badly needs a math teacher called colleges in a futile effort to find one and then started going through names of residents living nearby who have math expertise and might be able to teach.
If the policy hadn’t been enacted, the school was considering hiring a long term substitute teacher to supervise math class with students who took it a year earlier instructing as teacher assistant, Hansen said.
“Is that what we want? That scares me,” Hansen said before the policy was approved. “That scares me that they are so desperate for teachers.”
Among college students who become public school teachers, four out of every 10 leave the profession within five years. Utah lost teachers at a rate twice the national average in 2011-2012.
Utah lawmakers have asked the University of Utah Education and Policy Center to find out why teachers are dropping out. Two factors that researchers are looking at are the state’s lower-than-average teacher salaries and Utah’s relatively large, young families.
But those trends are longstanding and don’t fully explain the recent drops in the teaching ranks, the center said. The study is expected to be completed by the end of the year.