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Regional teaching licenses studied

| Monday, Jan. 13, 2003

If a little-known regional plan proceeds, teachers in Pennsylvania and nearby states soon might find it easier to get a teaching job in a different state.

A committee of education and state representatives from Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C., are working on a proposal that would allow teachers to seek a regional license honored in those areas.

If successful, the Mid-Atlantic Regional Teachers Project would enable teachers who relocate to one of these states or cross nearby state lines for a teaching job to do so without undergoing a recertification process, which includes applying for a new license regardless of experience. Transplanted teachers also often must take one or more standardized tests to become certified in a new state.

"There's a lot of transferring in and out of state," said Diana Rigden, vice president of the Council for Basic Education, the nonprofit organization in Washington, D.C., that is managing the project. "And it's very easy for someone in Maryland to be teaching in a contiguous state."

Another benefit cited is the potential alleviation of the teacher surplus in Pennsylvania and the shortage in other states, since each state easily could draw from another's supply. Pennsylvania teachers trying to find jobs in a flooded market would have more opportunities, project officials said.

However, the idea of a regional teaching license produces many complications and hurdles.

For one thing, every state sets its own standards for teacher qualifications, and all participating states would have to agree on common requirements. Teachers also could lose their seniority in an interstate move, which could result in pay cuts and other setbacks significant enough to drive them out of the field, project officials said.

Perhaps the most insurmountable complication is how to transfer state-issued pensions, such as Pennsylvania's defined benefit plan, which is based on salary, years of service and a pension formula.

"That's very difficult. I don't see how you could do it," said Al Fondy, president of the Pennsylvania Federation of Teachers and the union's local chapter, the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers.

Mary Jane Phillips, a spokeswoman for the local chapters of the Pennsylvania State Education Association, said a regional license could be a blessing if the state's high standards for teachers are maintained. The surplus of teachers in Pennsylvania can make it difficult for some, particularly new graduates, to find a job here.

"It may well be an advantage for our Pennsylvania-certified teachers who want to teach somewhere else, especially for those teachers who live close to a state border," she said. "If teachers who are unable to get jobs in Pennsylvania need to travel across state lines to get jobs, we hope they're able to do that."

For the regional license to become a reality, the states must first agree on common standards.

Representatives are working toward a consensus on such standards, which are sure to include requirements for at least a bachelor's degree and set a specific minimum grade-point average from college, Rigden said. Current definitions of qualified teachers vary from state to state, and the proposal is complicated because states want to maintain their own standards.

"The states would like some way of assuring themselves that future teachers teaching in their state are qualified to teach in that state," she said. "School districts are really trying to get qualified teachers in front of every child."

While a regional license could be in place this year, 2004 is a more realistic target, Rigden said. Committee members will vote on their resolution in March, and then members will go back to their home states to seek approval. States that approve the license can proceed even if other states reject it, Rigden said.

The committee is formed of teachers, policymakers and state officials and has about four or five members from each state. Committee representatives from Pennsylvania said the proposal has potential, but they have little optimism that some dilemmas can be resolved satisfactorily.

"I think it is more likely that they can come up with a common set of qualifications for teachers," said Stinson Straup, committee member for the Mid-Atlantic project and executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators. "But it's less likely they'll accept each other's pensions and seniority, and therefore there will still be impediments to mobility."

Curt Rose, another committee member, said the regional license would be a strong benefit to other states hurting for educators, since Pennsylvania is an "exporter of teachers." However, the plan could backfire if many more out-of-state teachers seek higher-paying jobs here.

Rose, assistant executive director of the Pennsylvania School Boards Association, said the biggest problem is the pension issue — and he is not optimistic about a resolution.

The concept of a regional teaching license is not unique to this region. Similar proposals are floating around elsewhere in the country, said Charles R. Coble, executive director of the Teaching Quality Policy Center at the Education Commission of the States in Denver.

His organization, in conjunction with Denver-based State Higher Education Executive Officers, provided a $10,000 grant to the Mid-Atlantic project and $48,000 to equivalent projects in the South and Northeast. The project was launched four years ago.

While the obstacles are real and difficult, Coble remains hopeful that with significant cooperation among participating states, regional teaching licenses will become a reality.

"There has to be compromise across these state lines," he said. "There's not a thing that's exactly alike among them."

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