Mar. 22—The state teachers union urged lawmakers Monday to support a bill that would provide a lifetime teaching certificate to teachers with 20 years of experience and remove state-level requirements for documenting ongoing training.
The Maine Education Association and others praised the measure because it would eliminate paperwork and an annual fee, at a time when teaching positions can be difficult to fill.
But the measure was opposed by the Maine School Boards Association, among others, who said it could erode the quality of the state's teaching corps.
The bill was before the Legislature's Education and Cultural Affairs Committee for a public hearing. If approved, it would put Maine among a handful of states that offer lifetime licenses to teach.
The measure is being sponsored by Rep. Justin Fecteau, R-Augusta, a high school German teacher, who has previously supported easing credentialing requirements as way to help with an ongoing teacher shortage in Maine.
Teachers are currently required to pay a $100 recertification fee to the state every five years, while showing they have also completed at least 90 hours of professional development over that period.
Fecteau said the bill doesn't remove the any requirements for professional development, which is also usually a condition of employment for teachers at the local level. Instead, he said it removes one "hurdle" and eliminates some paperwork and costs for teachers who have show a commitment to the profession by remaining certified for at least 20 years.
"Our long-serving teachers are leaders in their schools, leaders in their communities and have proven themselves to be invaluable assets," Fecteau said. "I know there are discussions every day at the Department of Education, within this committee and within each district to 'take something off their plate.' Well, here is something."
Fecteau said professional development requirements were already largely "baked in" for teachers at the local level.
By awarding lifetime certificates the state would be "graduating teachers from the paperwork race," he said.
Opponents, however, said removing the certification requirement for career teachers may lead to a less-qualified teaching corps and erode the concept of life-long learning, a key value in the Maine Learning Results, the academic standards set in state law.
Forty-four states have ongoing teacher certification requirements, while eight require teachers to document minimum classroom teaching experience and six consider evaluation ratings during license renewals. That's according to a 2018 report by New America that was presented as part of written opposition testimony from Educate Maine. The business-led nonprofit organization advocates for preparing Maine public school students for college and work.
The New America report takes a dim view of eliminating ongoing certification requirements. "States that aren't going to make sure the recertification process is professionally meaningful for teachers should scrap the license-renewal process altogether and offer lifetime licenses," the report concludes.
That report said only New Jersey offers teachers lifetime licensing without an ongoing credentialing requirement, while four other states offer lifetime licenses with ongoing requirements.
Steven Bailey, executive director of the Maine School Boards Association, said school boards are opposed to the bill and concerned that teachers with 20 years of service or more would miss out on valuable training. He said the value of that training has been highlighted during the coronavirus pandemic.
"The disruption of in-person teaching, training and support during COVID added to that concern," Bailey said, adding that school boards' opposition "should not be viewed as a prediction of what would happen if this bill passes, but rather what this bill could take away. A support system that not only helps individual teachers renew their certification but one that can be with them throughout their career."
Grace Leavitt, a high school Spanish teacher on leave from Leavitt High School who is serving as president of the Maine Education Association, said the union's members support Fecteau's bill.
Leavitt said that as a classroom teacher with more than 43 years of experience, she was a "little skeptical" of the bill at first, too.
"I know how much things change," Leavitt said, responding to questions from lawmakers. "Things are constantly changing and one needs to keep up with the changes in order to do what is best for our students."
But Leavitt said local requirements for professional development, coupled with the teacher evaluation process, ensured that teachers were keeping up-to-date and being trained in the best methods and practices.
"It's ongoing, it's part of what you do," she said.
Rep. Rebecca Millett, D-Cape Elizabeth, asked Leavitt about "diminishing opportunities" for teacher professional development, especially during tough financial times for school districts, and whether an ongoing state requirement for it helped protect the local requirements.
"Would we then lose that if we were to make this change?" Millett asked.
Leavitt said she would want any professional development to be guided by teachers with support from local policymakers. She said teachers would not want to lose support for ongoing professional development but that part of being a professional in any field involved continuing to learn, grow and improve. "So I just see that as part of what educators do as part of the profession," Leavitt said.
The committee will hold a work session in the weeks ahead before voting on a recommendation on the measure for the full Legislature.