desks school stock classroom

State education leaders are behind a push in the Legislature to make it easier for midcareer professionals to become teachers, with the goal of helping to address a shortage of educators that is plaguing Louisiana and the nation.

The measure, House Bill 310, is aimed at professionals who have an interest in teaching but who had less than stellar academic careers.

Instead of requiring a mandatory grade-point average to enter a teacher training program, the state's top school board would spell out alternative requirements based on an applicant's post-college work record.

"We know there are people out there who were not the best students in their undergraduate experience," said Erin Bendily, assistant state superintendent of education. "Later on in life, they have entered the workforce, done very well and now they are interested in moving to teaching.

"We think we should be able to at least look at a successful track record in the workforce. That should count for something."

No one doubts that the teacher shortage is real.

One in five classrooms in Louisiana is led by a teacher who is either uncertified or teaching outside their field.

Forty percent of teachers quit in the first five years.

Those entering the profession in Louisiana are down 18 percent since 2011. Nationally, the number of teachers finishing requirements for the classroom is down 20 percent.

Mike Faulk, executive director of the Louisiana Association of School Superintendents and an educator for 46 years, said today's challenge is more serious than in the past.

"The thing about it is, with all the requirements teachers have to meet, with all the changes in four-year colleges and universities, it is just a challenge," Faulk said.

"So something has to be done to kind of open the gate a little bit more," he added.

The bill, which is awaiting action in the House Education Committee, is sponsored by Rep. Wayne McMahen, a Minden Republican who joined the House in August.

He said the legislation is aimed at giving potential teachers a second chance after they failed to earn top marks in college.

"This is an opportunity for kids who have been performing to get back in teaching," McMahen said.

The plan is backed by the state Department of Education.

The scoop on state politics in your inbox

Get the Louisiana politics insider details once a week from us. Sign up today.

Teachers unions are less enthused.

In an interview, Debbie Meaux, president of the Louisiana Association of Educators, said she is concerned about making it easier for laymen to enter content-heavy fields like math and science.

"I would be a little leery of someone who made less than a 2.5 (GPA)," Meaux said.

State aid for public schools has been frozen for all but one year in the past decade, and the Legislature is grappling with whether to boost state dollars by $39 million for the 2019-20 school year — a 1.375 percent increase.

"We are trying to pull in people so we have bodies in the classroom," Meaux said. "We need instead to fix the funding issue, and that will go a long way to make sure those entering our classrooms are those who chose education as their career path and prepared to do it well."

Cynthia Posey, legislative and political director for the Louisiana Federation of Teachers, said in a statement her group appreciates efforts to address the shortage, but "we have concerns about lowering standards and credentials for teachers and the negative impact that would have on Louisiana's students."

Under current rules, teacher candidates have to earn at least a 2.2 GPA to enter an education program, and a 2.5 to graduate from one.

The legislation would shelve those requirements for people in the workforce based on a "successful, progressive work experience" as defined by the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.

Instead of a 2.5 GPA, applicants have to meet teacher training rules as spelled out by BESE.

Those who do so could then pursue teaching credentials through a process called alternative certification or through a post-baccalaureate program, said Hannah Dietsch, assistant superintendent of education for talent.

Under new rules, aspiring teachers have to spend one school year in the classroom working with a teacher mentor.

To become certified they also have to pass a national licensing exam, called PRAXIS, that measures both their content knowledge and what they know about the art of teaching.

Backers say the changes are aimed at those with a passion for teaching put off by knowing they would have to finish numerous courses, and do well, to improve their GPAs.

"The people we are talking about are mature people," Faulk said. "They have probably been in some other field."

Bendily said the legislation stemmed from talks with education deans, school personnel directors and others.

She said officials also learned, based on information from the Education Commission of the States, that Louisiana's rules for entering the teaching profession are more rigorous than in lots of other states.

"Everybody said it makes sense to give ourselves some flexibility," Bendily said. 

Follow Will Sentell on Twitter, @WillSentell.