Delegate Sean Hornbuckle, D-Cabell, addresses the House of Delegates on Tuesday. “What we’re doing here is we’re devaluing, we’re devaluing what our teachers do for us and what they mean to us,” Hornbuckle said.

The day after a West Virginia Department of Education presentation revealed that 38 percent of public school math courses in grades seven through 11 are taught by “non-fully certified teachers,” the House of Delegates passed 50-48 a bill that would lower requirements to become an alternatively certified teacher.

House Bill 4407, which now heads to the Senate, would erase the requirement that those wanting to become teachers through alternative certification must already have an “academic major or occupational area the same as or similar to the subject matter” they wish to teach.

The bill had already passed out of the House Education Committee, the only House committee it was sent to, before the education department officials’ Monday presentation to that committee on teacher vacancies.

But concerns about West Virginia teacher vacancies were already being voiced this session amid Democrats’ push for higher teacher pay raises than what Republicans have supported and amid talk of a possible statewide teacher strike over pay, health insurance benefit cuts and other issues.

Monday’s presentation to House Education focused on the often-cited over 700 “teacher vacancies” number, but what’s counted in the exact 727 figure is complex. The department itself presented lawmakers a document with a title saying the 727 represented “professional positions not filled with full-time, fully certified employees,” and noted the number was “as of October 1.”

Only 62 were positions that actually had no one in them. Robert Hagerman, executive director of the department’s Office of Certification and Professional Preparation, said that even in those cases “no child is unattended or uncared for,” saying multiple arrangements may have been made to address the vacancy.

The 727 number, according to the department document, also included 101 positions with teachers who were fully certified and properly endorsed in the subject they were teaching “but for some reason do not want the position full time and are substitutes.” It also included 110 “retired educator” positions that may include fully certified, but not full-time, teachers.

Complicating things further is the fact that Michele Blatt, an assistant state schools superintendent, said 89 “out-of-field authorization” teachers and 436 “first class/full time permit” teachers aren’t represented within the 727 “because these are teachers that are certified and that have committed to pursuing the coursework and the things to become certified.”

Regarding the 38 percent of public school math courses in grades seven through 11 that are taught by “non-fully certified teachers,” Hagerman said that figure was as of late December/early January, and it does count a course taught by a first class/full time permit teacher or out-of-field authorization teacher as a course taught by a non-fully certified teacher. Also, he said the 38 percent figure doesn’t count a course taught by a fully certified and properly endorsed retired educator as part of that 38 percent.

He said that for a person to begin teaching in a classroom through an out-of-field authorization or a first class/full time permit, they must have a bachelor’s degree from a regionally accredited college and be taking at least six semester hours annually of college courses to achieve certification in the area they’re teaching in, and must at the end of their program pass the PRAXIS content exam for the endorsement. They have up to five years to do this.

The difference between the two, he said, is that out-of-field authorizations are only available to already licensed teachers who just need to earn full certification to teach in another subject area.

First class/full time permit teachers aren’t yet licensed, so, alongside the bachelor’s degree, which doesn’t have to be a teaching degree for them, they have to have 25 percent of their college program to earn certification already completed and must pass the basic skills PRAXIS in reading, writing in math or earn an exemption from that PRAXIS to begin teaching.

Multiple Republicans joined members of the Democratic minority in voting against H.B. 4407 Tuesday — the House only has 36 Democratic members. Delegates Saira Blair, R-Berkeley, and Kayla Kessinger, R-Fayette, didn’t vote.

“What we’re doing here is we’re devaluing, we’re devaluing what our teachers do for us and what they mean to us,” said Delegate Sean Hornbuckle, D-Cabell. “But we’re also telling Concord, Fairmont, West Virginia State, Marshall and West Virginia universities that there’s probably no longer a need for their teaching degrees because you can just do anything and sign up to teach. So, before you make this vote, just think about the message that we are sending to our teachers because, 20 minutes ago, we passed a pay raise, but now we’re going to go back and say ‘Well, you’re not really worth it, anybody can do what you do.”

State law and state Board of Education policy currently allow county boards of education to create alternative teacher certification programs, separate from out of field authorizations and first class/full time permits, through which people who don’t have teaching degrees can nonetheless become public school teachers.

Certain program decisions are left to counties, but law and state school board policy set certain requirements for all programs, including the mandate that alternative certification applicants have a related academic major or occupation and the mandate that such alternatively certified teachers can only be hired in “areas of critical need and shortage.”

Blatt said such shortage areas are positions which counties have posted twice without getting any successful applicants. She said the department determines whether academic or work experience is relevant through reviewing college transcripts and resumes, “and it has to be like a 75-percent match to the area that they’re applying to.”

While H.B. 4407 would nix the related major or occupation requirement, it would leave the statewide requirement for at least a bachelor’s degree from a regionally accredited college, and would still require any alternative certification applicant to “pass the same basic skills and subject matter test or tests required by the state board for traditional program candidates to become certified in the area for which he or she is seeking licensure.”

The current tests are PRAXIS tests, and the basic knowledge PRAXIS test measures teachers’ skills in math and English. There’s also a pedagogy test and other, subject-specific ones that teachers take to become certified to teach in certain areas.

Reach Ryan Quinn at ryan.quinn@wvgazettemail.com, facebook.com/ryanedwinquinn, 304-348-1254 or follow @RyanEQuinn on Twitter.

Education Reporter