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Renewable Teachers' Licenses Pushed in 3 States

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Despite vehement opposition from teachers' unions, school board officials in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York have revived their statewide campaigns to replace lifetime teaching certificates with renewable licenses.

The three are among only a handful of states that still award permanent certificates to teachers who have successfully completed a probationary period, earned a graduate degree, or fulfilled other professional-development requirements.

Permanent certification used to be far more common, but many states moved to renewable licenses in the early 1980's, as part of the first wave of school reform.

Advocates of renewable licensure claim it forces teachers to demonstrate that they have kept up with changes in pedagogy and in their subject areas.

The unions, on the other hand, argue that such a system shifts most of the burden for continuing education to teachers and endangers their job security by "politicizing'' certification procedures.

As the Keystone State moves to a performance-based education system, the Pennsylvania School Boards Association is stepping up its efforts on behalf of renewable certification, said Thomas J. Gentzel, the group's associate executive director.

"I think the state board is looking at changes that probably a few years ago were not even considerable,'' he added. "And I think some of the members see renewable certification as a way to increase accountability'' for teachers.

"We're concerned that the in-service teachers are receiving is not necessarily in the fields in which they're teaching,'' said Mr. Gentzel, adding that teachers "aren't really required to do anything'' after they obtain a permanent license.

The state board is expected to issue a draft of new teacher-performance standards this month, which could include changes in licensure, said William Smith, a member of the board.

Public Backing Claimed

But teachers complain that proponents of renewable licenses are unfairly presenting them as the only link to ongoing professional development.

"Continuing education is extremely important, but it shouldn't be the sole responsibility of the teacher,'' said Annette Palutis, the president of the 125,000-member Pennsylvania State Education Association. "We should put some onus on school districts.''

In New Jersey, school board officials last month released a survey showing that over 80 percent of registered voters would favor replacing lifetime teaching certificates with five-year renewable licenses.

After their first year on the job, New Jersey teachers currently are eligible for permanent certification with no professional-development requirements.

The New Jersey School Boards Association plans to use the survey to press the state board of education or the legislature to consider revising licensing rules, according to Frank Belluscio, a spokesman for the N.J.S.B.A.

Gov.-elect Christine Todd Whitman already has indicated that she would favor adopting renewable licenses, he added.

Mr. Belluscio said his group also hopes to persaude the state "to take advantage of a window of opportunity'' created by a large number of retirement-age teachers in the state. With a substantial turnover, fewer teachers who currently hold certificates "would have to be grandfathered'' under new regulations, he asserted.

'Another Name for No Tenure'

The school board association in New York also called again this year for changes in teacher-certification procedures.

There, too, however, the campaign against permanent licensing faces strong union opposition.

The association's proposal "is just another name for renewable tenure, which is just another name for no tenure,'' said Linda Rosenblatt, the communications director for the New York State United Teachers. "Permanent certification removes teaching from the political realm.''

Union officials also dismiss advocates' claims that lifetime certification breeds mediocrity in the field.

"It's far easier to call for changes in the law than to question the competence of those who hire, evaluate, supervise, and, if necessary, remove teachers,'' Ms. Rosenblatt added.

She also argued that shifting to renewable licensure would make it easier for fiscally pressed districts to replace higher-paid career educators with inexperienced teachers hired at lower salaries.

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