Schools across the state are facing a shortage of teachers and substitute teachers. Meanwhile, according to an investigation by Statesman Journal reporter Natalie Pate, the agency that is in charge of issuing professional licenses to educators can take as long as 61 days to approve applications. Pate joins us to talk about her investigation and the impact of the licensing backlog.
Note: The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.
Dave Miller: From the Gert Boyle studio at OPB, this is Think Out Loud. I’m Dave Miller. Schools across the state of Oregon are facing a shortage of teachers and substitute teachers. Meanwhile, according to an investigation by the Statesman Journal reporter Natalie Pate, the agency that’s in charge of issuing professional licenses to educators can take as long as 74 days to approve their applications. Natalie Pate joins us now to talk about the impact of this licensing backlog. Natalie, welcome.
Natalie Pate: Thank you for having me.
Miller: Can you give us a sense for just how big the backlog of license applications is right now?
Pate: Yeah. So in 2020/21 the Teacher Standards and Practices Commission received over 23,600 applications, and this includes new applications as well as folks who are renewing theirs, but when we checked this year, just one month left in their fiscal year, this was back in May, they had already received more than 26,500 applications and this was the most they’ve received in at least seven years.
Miller: How much has the wait time increased for a license application to be processed over the last few years?
Pate: The agency’s processing time increased about 27% between October of 2022 to October of 2021. So that was an increase from 48 days to 61 days and as you mentioned earlier, the average processing time, this may reach 74 days.
Miller: So it just keeps getting longer. Are we looking at an increase in people seeking licenses or is it just that the pandemic has slowed down the process of actually going through these applications and either approving them or denying them?
Pate: Sure. It’s a mix of factors. The licensing agency saw a substantial decrease in applications back in 2020 when COVID first hit and they dipped below 20,000 applications for the first time in several years, but when school started making more commitments to reopen in person last spring, the application numbers started to rise again, and by the summer, the numbers picked up even further and it just hasn’t gone back down. And part of that problem is that not only are more people trying to answer that call for the need for more teachers in the classroom, but the number of people who are actually handling the applications at the licensing agency hasn’t grown. They have a fixed number of employees to work on that licensing team, which is fewer than 10 people handling tens of thousands of applications.
Miller: Let’s take a step back then. What does the process of licensure actually entail? What are these 10 people doing with these tens of thousands of applications?
Pate: Right, so the licensure staff has to confirm that the documentation that’s sent in, such as required transcripts that are submitted by each applicant, is complete, is full and they also have to pass background checks for the applicants and all of that takes time. They have to make sure that the fees are paid, they have to make sure that everything has been processed properly. And they’re doing it for several types of licenses across varying positions.
Miller: What is that range? I mean, what kinds of jobs in K-12 schools require licensure?
Pate: Right. TSPC represents teachers and school administrators, which are principals and superintendents, but they also represent school counselors, nurses, psychologists, social workers and more. There’s over 70,000 employees in schools, across Oregon schools. But half of the state’s licensees work in public schools and others work in international or private institutions.
Miller: Substitute teachers seem like a really important piece here because it’s been one of the pinch points in the last year and a half. We just heard about it, just last week from three different Oregon superintendents in three very different parts of Oregon, all saying even if, in some cases, they had enough teachers, they do not have enough substitute teachers. What happened to substitute teachers numbers in the first year of the pandemic, when schools were basically all online?
Pate: Yeah, a lot of substitutes didn’t really know where their place was in that. And as a result, districts across the states saw a really sharp decline in the number of available substitutes and at the same time, the number of teachers who were out sick because of COVID or who were choosing to retire or resign, continued to spike. So in December of 2019, there were about 8300 individuals on substitute licenses. But that number decreased to 5500 in December of 2020 and then to 4700 by November of 2021.
Miller: Almost halfway. Is that because people had just, they let their licenses lapse or they or they yanked them out of the system. And how is it that the number went down so much?
Pate: My understanding is that many of those were ones that they chose not to renew, that it was a lapse, but it’s hard to track for some of those if it was actively removed versus if it was, they chose not to renew it.
Miller: Didn’t the state loosen licensing requirements for substitute teachers because of this, a kind of emergency response to a clear problem?
Pate: Correct. The state began requiring only a high school diploma versus a college degree.
Miller: Is that emergency order still in effect?
Pate: Yes. A second temporary rule was filed this past spring and it’s in effect through October 27th of this year, so applications have to be submitted on or before that date. In order to use that rule, it is a TSPC rule, so any extension would have to come from them.
Miller: But just to be clear. So if I understand what you’re saying, the bar was lowered a little bit in terms of people who want to get licenses to become substitute teachers, but you still have to apply for a license and it has to go through this process that has, where you’re joining one of more than 20,000 other people who have applied in the last year. So you’re still in the queue?
Miller: There’s also the question of cost. You interviewed one longtime substitute teacher who let her license expire, like you were talking about, in the early days of the pandemic and she was told she’d have to pay $400 recently to renew it. What did you hear from her?
Pate: Yeah, so that’s Atlanta Past, she’s a retired sixth grade science teacher. She started substituting about five years ago after she retired, but she didn’t renew her license at the start of the pandemic since she wasn’t sure how long remote learning specifically would last. But this past year when the commitment to return to in person started happening again and they were pleased to get more substitute teachers in the classroom, she decided, okay, now it’s time for me to renew, and she found she not only had to pay the base fee which is $182 but she also had to pay a $200 late fee, as well as some processing fees. Now Oregon state statute mandates that the commission establish and collect a base fee as well as late fees which are $40 per month up to that $200 amount. And these fees have been in place for a really long time, several years and they are required under state law. But some educators, like Past, feel like they should be removed or reduced as the pandemic staff shortages, inflation, and all these other issues continue to impact schools.
Miller: But that wouldn’t, if I understand correctly, that that wouldn’t be up to this state agency. That would be up to lawmakers.
Pate: They would have to pursue it legislatively to change anything that substantially. Now, the statute doesn’t set the specific amount, so as long as they are under the existing guidelines, they theoretically could change it. But one of the biggest problems is that TSPC is one of the few, I mean, Oregon is one of only 12 in the country whose teaching licensing agency is separate from the state’s general fund. So this agency, which is there to protect teachers and educators and students, they are fully funded by these licensing fees. So they theoretically could make some adjustments without having to go to lawmakers, but at what risk? They would still have to be able to pay for their day to day operations.
Miller: Oh and so to actually streamline this system in such a way that you could actually go through the backlog faster, to streamline it so people could go faster, you would actually have less money to pay to the people who are actually doing the work to streamline it.
Miller: So has there been talk among lawmakers or other people who have power in Oregon to somehow fix this system, to streamline or to make it cheaper?
Pate: Well, so on the ground level, Past was not the only teacher who’s brought up this concern to TSPC. A human resource specialist from Hood River County School District, for example, submitted a letter in January to TSPC citing these late fees as a deterrent to getting teachers in the classroom, specifically in more rural areas that are having an especially difficult time. The commission didn’t change the fees in response. Like I mentioned, it would change their entire budget system in some ways. But they did respond with…
Miller: Natalie Pate, can you hear me?
Pate: Yes, I can.
Miller: Okay. ‘but they did respond,’ that’s the last thing we heard.
Pate: Okay. Sorry. Yes, they did respond where they felt they could. So they paused the requirement for applicants to submit proof of professional development, in some cases, and some testing requirements. But I have not heard any conversations at this point by lawmakers or state officials talking about completely changing the licensing system for the state.
Miller: And what about the possibility of hiring more people, more than 10 people to work through this backlog?
Pate: At this point, I don’t think they plan to. I spoke with Elizabeth Keller, who’s the commission’s Director of Licensing and she said that because they don’t know that the volume will continue and they have no way to predict that, hiring additional staff on that fixed budget might not work. But she did say that there are concerns about the sustainability of the commission in the future, based on their existing funding structure. She said they’re set for this biennium, maybe the next one, but 4 to 6 years from now, she couldn’t be sure.
Miller: Natalie, thanks very much.
Pate: Thank you.
Miller: Natalie Pate is the Education reporter for The Statesman Journal.
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