Nathan Flynn: Occupational licensing could reduce teacher shortages

Requiring college degrees burdens would-be teachers with crushing debt.

Al Hartmann | The Salt Lake Tribune Teacher Brook Taylor gives her new students their first writing assignment for ACT Prep class at Granger High School. There is not an empty seat in her modular classroom. She has over 40 students.

When children across the state arrive at their classrooms, many may be shocked to see that their teacher is missing.

It is an inescapable fact that Utah is struggling to find qualified teachers to fill open positions in the classroom. Too often, the reality for many students is that their principal, guidance counselor or a substitute is having to step in and fill roles left open by a massive labor shortage.

Being a teacher can often be a stressful and thankless position. Teachers spend hundreds of unpaid hours grading homework and preparing lesson plans outside of the classroom while receiving derisive comments about the job being cushy because they get “summers off.”

Yet, for decades, enough people chose to teach, making sacrifices for the noble work of education, despite how thankless it is. If you’re a teacher or know a teacher, you understand that individuals who enter the professional field of teaching do it because they truly love it and cherish their students.

However, with education becoming increasingly politicized, teacher pay remaining low and stress ballooning due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many professionals have considered or already have opted to leave their roles as educators. While all of these reasons for teacher shortages have been heavily discussed, one overlooked cause comes in the form of occupational licensing.

In order to become a teacher in Utah, one must meet all of the state’s mandated occupational licensing requirements. This often necessitates obtaining a bachelor’s degree or other higher education degree, especially if you seek to earn a higher level of licensure.

These degrees are often exceptionally expensive and can leave prospective teachers with a plethora of student loan debt. Such debt may become extremely burdensome and hinder educators from achieving financial stability as many teachers’ only pathway to paying down such debt is to work as chronically underpaid educators. Simply put, the return on investment isn’t there for those looking to teach in Utah.

One solution to this return-on-investment problem that could simultaneously combat teacher shortages is lowering the investment required to meet teacher licensure requirements. Such an avenue would make teaching a more accessible profession.

A freshly graduated college student with a brand-new bachelors of chemistry is in a much better financial position to take a job as a teacher in Utah than she would be if she took several more years of classes and student loans to get an education certification. Such certifications are almost completely unnecessary for educators to obtain. They do little to improve knowledge of subject material, and often neglect the impactful furthering of classroom management skills. Instead, they are a piece of arbitrary government regulation.

“We’ve knowingly and unknowingly subscribed to the belief that these barriers to entry will ensure that only the best teachers come out certified – we’re wrong. These barriers ensure that only those with the most resources can become teachers,” said Izzi Geller, a substitute teacher who is going through the licensing process.

It turns out that Utah’s stringent occupational licensing requirements for teachers fail at the intended purpose of ensuring that only good teachers teach, as there is little to no evidence that high teaching requirements are related to better teachers.

With student-to-teacher ratios ballooning, lots of students being unable to receive instruction from a qualified educator, and arbitrarily high barriers to entry to this profession, Utah must act to reform its occupational licensing laws that impact educators.

Nathan Flynn | Libertas Institute

Nathan Flynn is an intern at Libertas Institute, a nonprofit think tank based in Lehi.