TAMPA, Fla. — With just a few months to go until the end of this school year, the Hillsborough County school district remains some 400 teachers short.
“We need help right now,” said Hillsborough County school superintendent Addison Davis.
But the head of the state’s third largest school district is hopeful Florida’s years-long teacher shortage crisis could be inching toward closing its teacher gap. That’s in part because of a new bill proposing changes to what it requires to become certified to teach in the state.
Tucked in the school voucher expansion bill includes a provision that would allow teachers and candidates to skip out on having to take and pass the controversial general knowledge exam. Also known as the GK exam, it’s a must-pass test that Investigative Reporter Katie LaGrone and photographer Matthew Apthorp spent years investigating.
In 2017, LaGrone and Apthorp discovered state changes to the test resulted in unprecedented failures on the test. Their series of reports questioned the exam’s validity and relevancy as they also discovered failures on the test had forced districts to terminate more than one thousand teachers in one summer alone.
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According to the recently filed bill, so long as a teacher is deemed effective or highly effective for two years and can pass a test equivalent to the general knowledge test, the GK exam need not apply.
“One assessment doesn’t identify how efficient one can be in a classroom,” explained Superintendent Davis, whose district has also had to terminate effective teachers who did what they needed to do in the classroom but couldn’t pass the state test.
“These are some of our greatest educators. But maybe they’re not the greatest assessment takers, or they could have been bogged down the last few years. We need to give them a chance,” he said.
When asked if the proposed changes lessen the requirements to be a teacher in Florida, Davis responded, “it absolutely does not. I’m very confident in our evaluation system. I’m very confident in our administrators,” he said.
But Democratic Florida Senator Shevrin Jones, a former Florida teacher, and the first lawmaker we spoke with following our 2017 investigation, expressed concerns the bill may make it too easy to earn a spot at the front of the class.
“The concerns that I have settled on the fact that we won't do any type of certification tests at all. I don't think that's smart for us to do,” Jones said.
The bill still requires teachers to take and pass exams in the subject area they teach. It would also give them more time to pass those exams by extending temporary teaching certificates for teachers from three to five years.
In a recent interview, freshman Republican Senator Corey Simon, who introduced the bill, clarified his intent.
“We have very good teachers, and we want to keep those very good teachers in the classroom and give them time needed to hone their craft,” he said recently.
“It’s a step in the right direction,” Hillsborough County’s school superintendent added.
But is it a game changer to Florida’s teacher shortage?
“We’ll have to see, but it’s a step in the right direction,” Superintendent Davis said.
SB 202 will head to the appropriations committee on Wednesday.