Wisconsin Killed License Renewal. So Why Are Teachers So Upset?

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The license-renewal process for teachers in Wisconsin was ripe for a change.

It wasn’t necessarily hard, but it was complex and duplicative, educators say. The state had gone from requiring credit hours to letting teachers devise personal professional-learning plans, and had also recently implemented a new statewide teacher-evaluation system.

“We called them parallel processes—you’re evaluated for your job, you’re evaluated for your professional-development plan, you’re evaluated for educator effectiveness, and if you got your National Board certification, you’d be evaluated for that, too,” said Catherine Anderson, a retired Wisconsin science teacher who now works as an adjunct at the St. Mary’s University of Minnesota master’s in education program in Wisconsin.

Some teachers were still using the old recertification process, taking six credits with a state-approved professional-development provider—generally paying their own way to do so.

“We were hearing the process needed to be streamlined, it needed to be looked at,” said Christina Brey, a spokeswoman for the Wisconsin Education Association Council, one of the state’s two main teachers’ unions.

But when the state legislature tucked a provision into the budget last summer that removed the expiration date from most teachers’ existing licenses—well, that wasn’t exactly the change many educators were looking for.

“We know that’s not a good plan,” said Anderson. “For those people that thought teachers weren’t capable—this gives them more fuel.”

No Professional-Development Requirements

The language was added to the budget, many say, without input from education stakeholders or much debate. (Members of the state’s education committee declined to comment.)

Wisconsin is one of five states that now gives lifetime licenses—meaning teachers essentially never have to renew their credentials. Missouri, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia have them as well.

Eight other states—Indiana, Louisiana, Michigan, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, Texas, and Washington—previously gave out lifetime licenses but changed direction at some point, according to a forthcoming analysis by New America, a public policy think tank.

The way it now works in Wisconsin is that teachers are given a provisional license when they first get certified. They can switch over to the lifetime license after completing six semesters of “successful experience” in a district.

But even that provisional license is “lifetime” in a way: Teachers can extend it as many times as needed until they’re deemed successful. There are no professional-development requirements to move on.

With the new rule, the Wisconsin department of public instruction, which had heard teachers’ complaints and had been piloting ways to streamline teacher-evaluation and renewal processes over the past few years, was forced to swerve.

“There were a whole lot of things we had to unpack,” said David DeGuire, the director of the teacher education, professional development, and licensing team for the education department.

For instance, what does “successful” mean? The department decided to leave that one up to districts.

Under the law, the state still needs to perform background checks on teachers every five years, which used to be part of the relicensing process. But that will be more difficult now, said DeGuire, because the budget eliminated some positions at the department.

The department still has jurisdiction over licensure, but its power is limited. “We’re still able to revoke lifetime licenses if an educator engages in immoral conduct, but as long as they remain employed and their background check continues to be clean … yeah … ,” DeGuire said.

In pushing for the change in law, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker claimed that it would save teachers $750 over a 30-year career.

And while the renewal expense was an issue for some educators who were taking courses to fulfill their requirements, it wasn’t at the top of most teachers’ list of complaints.

“We hadn’t heard teachers saying … the cost was crushing them,” said Brey of WEAC. “The issue is much more complex than that and lies with what we’re asking classroom teachers to do over a day, a week, a school year.”

‘Devaluing the Profession’

Many teachers were no doubt relieved to have recertification taken off their plates. But even those who were pleased with the new freedom have questioned the message it sends about their profession.

“You talk to you colleagues, and they’re like, ‘That would be great!’ ” not to have to renew, said Amy Traynor, an instructional coach in Eau Claire, Wis. “But on the other side, I don’t think we know the ramifications of what it will truly do. Part of it is devaluing the profession.”

Teachers have faced a series of legislative blows over the past several years in Wisconsin—chief among them a 2011 law championed by Walker that significantly reduced unions’ collective bargaining rights.

Since then, many districts have stopped giving salary bumps to teachers for upping their credentials. Master’s degrees in education programs have felt that loss acutely. And now some fear that the transition to lifetime licenses will further minimize teacher professional learning.

“Trying to find money for professional development was always a challenge,” said Timothy Slekar, the dean of the education school at Edgewood College in Madison, Wis., “but now you’ve taken away the need for teachers to come to the district and say, ‘I need PD to keep up my license.’ ”

That will hurt teachers in some districts more than others, some say.

“My biggest fear about it is because we’re a local-control state and because funding for education is a huge problem in Wisconsin, you’re going to have the haves and the have-nots,” said Traynor, who was previously named middle school teacher of the year for the state. “School districts that have the money to provide PD will be able to do that. School districts that don’t have the money won’t do that.”

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