SPRINGFIELD — The high cost and restrictive nature of teacher licensure tests may be contributing to the teacher shortage, according to some education officials.

Members of the Illinois State Board of Education discussed ways to rectify this problem while still maintaining a high level of quality in the classroom at its meeting Wednesday.

Jason Helfer, deputy superintendent for teaching and learning for the Illinois Board of Education, said the teacher shortage is a “multi-dimensional issue.”

A study by the Illinois Association of Regional Superintendents of Schools found that 85 percent of districts surveyed identified a major or minor problem with teacher shortages in their schools. Superintendents surveyed said 20 percent of positions that were open in 2018 remain unfilled or are filled by an unqualified professional. Because of the shortage, 225 classes are being canceled overall.

One issue the board has been hearing from its higher education partners and teacher candidates is that teacher licensure tests can be expensive. This includes a basic skills test, which would be $113 altogether, and another one known as the “edTPA,” which is $300.

The cost of going into teaching programs compared with the financial return of actually being a teacher is not worth it for some students, Helfer said.

“I’ve lost count of the number of students that I worked with at Knox College who really, really, really wanted to be a teacher, and they looked at the price of the education, and they looked at the price when they were going to be starting out, and they simply couldn’t do it,” he said.

The Test of Academic Proficiency, which is currently used to test basic skills, will be put on hold indefinitely starting June 30 while the Board of Education studies other ways to do alternative basic skill assessments.

There are a few bills that would eliminate basic skills tests, including Senate Bill 1952, which ends the test permanently. House Bill 423, sponsored by Rep. Sue Scherer, D-Decatur, eliminates it until 2025. Senate Bill 1952, sponsored by Sen. Andy Manar, D-Bunker Hill, would also refund the cost of the edTPA to teachers in high-risk areas.

The board has taken a neutral position on bills eliminating the basic skills test, according to Amanda Elliott, a lobbyist for ISBE.

Darren Reisberg, chairman of the Illinois State Board of Education, said the board needs to focus on rigor and getting teachers of the highest quality, even despite the teacher shortage.

“I think that is what the students deserve, I think that is what the teachers who ... come to this profession want to be,” he said. “I don’t think we can absolve ourselves of the responsibility as a board and agency of diving in and dealing with this.”

Though the teacher shortage is an issue across Illinois, central and southern regions of the state, and certain subject areas, are hit especially hard.

“Special education by far, statewide, is the one area where there is the greatest amount of shortage,” Helfer said.

This has been a problem for Chuck Lane, superintendent of Centralia High School, who has had an open special education teaching position since last spring.

“I’ve advertised for the position for a year now, and not one candidate,” he told the board. 

This is especially frustrating for Lane, he said, because he has two male employees with bachelor’s degrees, one working as a paraprofessional in the special education room and the other as the in-school suspension supervisor.

Hiring the two men, who are African-American, would bring more diversity to a school with only one minority teacher, according to Lane.

But, he said, there is no real path for them to become teachers, as they can’t afford to quit their jobs and take all the classes they need to become certified. There is an alternative pathway for someone to become a licensed teacher if they didn’t major in education, but that takes two years.

“So here we have a school district that needs minority teachers, that has an opening where we can’t find anyone, I have two minorities that want to teach, but no way to let them do that,” Lane told the board. “That’s why we’re really frustrated.”

For Lane’s district, teacher salary is not the underlying issue. Several bills, one in the House and the other in the Senate, would raise the teacher minimum wage to $40,000.

“We start off at $41,000, which up here (in Springfield) may not be that big of a deal, but in our area it’s one of the highest paying schools in the area,” Lane said. “If I’m having those issues at my school, imagine what smaller school districts are dealing with in our area.”

Board member Christine Benson said the teaching profession needs a “significant” public relations campaign to bring it dignity.

“I think that’s a missing piece sometimes, in an attempt to deal with the problem, both to attract and to retain teachers,” Benson said.

“Recruitment efforts must also confront public opinion,” she added, citing a survey stating that a majority of parents don’t want their children to become teachers.