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Advocate file photo of Governor John Bel Edwards

While 1 out of 5 public school teachers in Louisiana is either uncertified or teaching outside their field of expertise, how many students are in those classrooms is in dispute.

Gov. John Bel Edwards, in his pitch for $1,000 teacher pay raises, is telling audiences that more than 1 in 3 students statewide sit in those classes – over a quarter of a million students.

"Thirty-five percent of our students are in classrooms right now where teachers are not certified, or they are not certified to teach what they are teaching," Edwards told the editorial board of The Advocate on Jan. 24.

The governor used the same, 35 percent figure in a speech to the Louisiana Federation of Teachers on Nov. 16.

But the state Department of Education, which is known nationally for its wide array of statistics, does not compile the number of all students led by those who lack certification or teach subjects outside of their expertise. In addition, the statistics cited by the governor's office represent only a portion of students statewide, not all those in Louisiana led by uncertified or out-of-field teachers. The same applies to the 2017-18 Educator Workforce Report – cited by others – that also represents some students, not the entire student population.

Donald Songy, education policy adviser for Edwards and former superintendent of the Ascension Parish School District, said Edwards' argument is valid.

"I think the point the governor has always tried to make is you pay teachers a good salary you are going to have fewer uncertified teachers," Songy said. "That is the whole point."

The state has about 720,000 public school students.

Edwards' teacher pay raise plan, including $500 pay boosts for support workers, has won widespread support and is one of his key priorities for the 2019 legislative session, which begins April 8.

It is part of a $134.7 million package, and the first of three installments aimed at raising salaries to the regional average set by the Southern Regional Education Board.

Teachers are now paid an average of about $50,000 per year, around $2,200 below the SREB benchmark.

Teacher certification is generally viewed as a sign of teacher quality, and boosting those numbers has been a longtime state goal. Certified teachers have to earn a college degree, finish with at least a 2.5 grade-point average out of 4.0 and pass a national teacher exam.

However, 6 percent of the state's teacher workforce – 2,509 teachers – were uncertified in 2017-18, according to the state Department of Education. Another 14 percent of the state's roughly 49.000 teachers – 6,297 – were teaching out of field.

That means those teachers have certificates but are not credentialed in at least one class they lead per day. That could mean a teacher certified in elementary grades is teaching secondary science, according to a state report.

Three of the toughest classes to fill – special education, science and math – lead the way in the percentage of out-of-field teachers at 38 percent. All three teaching posts are historically hard to fill, and doubly so amid a state and national teacher shortage that Edwards said his pay raise would address.

The number of students finishing teacher preparation programs has dropped 18 percent in Louisiana since the 2010-11 school year. The drop is 20 percent nationally.

That means educators statewide and nationally have to scramble to fill classes, and often settle for uncertified or teachers working outside their focus area.

Michael Faulk, executive director of the Louisiana Association of School Superintendents, said he thinks 35 percent "would be pretty close" to how many students are in those classrooms.

"I would say between 30 and 35 percent when you look at the small districts that have a large number of uncertified teachers,' said Faulk, former superintendent of the highly-ranked Central school system.

The state is trying to boost teacher quality in part by requiring aspiring teachers to spend a full school year working with a veteran mentor.

Officials also hope to lure more high school and college students into the profession through the "Be A Teacher LA" campaign that includes TV and radio ads.

Under state law, certification is not required in charter schools though most of those schools have minimum degree requirements and other rules for core courses.

Charter schools are supposed to offer non-traditional methods for their roughly 80,000 students.

"The idea was to be innovative," said Caroline Roemer, executive director of the Louisiana Association of Public Charter Schools, who says teachers are underpaid.

In an email, Roemer said it is important for teachers to have degrees in their subject area, strong content knowledge and training before entering the classroom. "However, certification alone is not a high bar and will not be the answer to low performance in our public education system," she said.

Follow Will Sentell on Twitter, @WillSentell.