A billboard that periodically springs up along Texas highways asks two questions: Want to teach? When can you start?
It is a message that reflects the pinch of the teacher shortage in a state where 80,000 new students enter the public school system each year — and the thriving business that has grown up around it.
Last year, nearly 3,000 people earned their teaching certificates from the company behind the billboards, A+ Texas Teachers — more than at any other program in the state. Texas is the only state that allows for-profit companies not affiliated with higher education institutions to offer teaching certificates.
Alternative certification programs like the one at A+ Texas Teachers offer a faster way into the classroom than college and university degree programs, taking anywhere from three months to two years to complete and costing about $4,000. Such programs now outpace traditional training in turning out certified teachers in the state.
In particular, for-profit programs, which graduate almost one in four of the state’s new teachers, have flourished. Every year since 2009, the state’s two largest for-profit providers, A+ Texas Teachers and iteachTEXAS, have produced far more teachers than any other traditional or alternative program.
Alternative certification providers say they are filling a need and preventing schools in poorer districts, which are more likely to suffer from shortages, from going without teachers.
But some education advocates question whether the state has adequate control over the quality of training provided by such programs.
“We have been successful in Texas creating a wide range of options for entering the teaching profession,” said John Fitzpatrick, the executive director of Educate Texas, a nonprofit that launched the Texas Teaching Commission in 2011 to advance policies related to the profession. “I worry about transparency and quality with the number of alternative certification, online, for-profit and not-for-profit programs without having a parallel scorecard or way to understand quality or effectiveness.”
Since the state set standards for certification programs in 2008, including at least a 2.5 undergraduate GPA for admission, further efforts at regulation have largely faltered. The alternative certification industry has fought measures that would have increased the number of hours that teaching candidates must spend in the classroom to receive certification and raised the minimum GPA required for admission.
As for-profit companies’ share of the market has grown, so has the money they have invested cultivating political ties at the state Capitol. IteachTEXAS is paying a lobbying team an estimated minimum of $60,000 this year, according to state records. A+ Texas Teachers is spending at least $80,000 on lobbying.
Vernon Reaser, the president of A+ Texas Teachers, is also a prolific political donor. Since 2009, Reaser, who did not respond to a request for comment, has contributed roughly $500,000 to Republican candidates, including at least $160,000 to Gov. Rick Perry, $82,000 to Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and $90,000 to Attorney General Greg Abbott, now the Republican candidate for governor.
“There are a number of for-profit companies that see this as a business proposition,” said state Rep. Mike Villarreal, a San Antonio Democrat who has attempted to strengthen teacher preparation requirements, including sponsoring legislation in 2011 that would have specified that aspiring teachers must spend at least 15 of a required 30 hours of practice in an actual classroom. “Of course, that’s their perspective and their right to show up and express their opinion. But it’s sort of like the tail wagging the dog when they are able to kill legislation.”
Testifying in August before governor-appointed board that regulates the teaching profession, John Peter Lund, a lobbyist for A+ Texas Teachers, argued that raising the required GPA for aspiring teachers even incrementally would worsen the teaching shortage and hurt diversity. According to the company’s analysis, Lund said, about 17 percent of the teachers who were hired out of its program in 2013 would not have qualified for admittance, and African-American candidates would have been disproportionately affected.
“A 2.5 — that’s roughly half B’s and half C’s — I think that is a respectable showing,” he said. “A lot of our teachers are career changers. And a 2.5 doesn’t mean the same thing in all subject areas either.”
Though some of the board members expressed skepticism that raising the minimum GPA would have limited the number of minority teachers, all but two ultimately voted in favor of keeping it at 2.5.
“Right now I’m looking at 33 vacancies, where I am looking at putting subs who have 60 hours of college, one of which I hope can speak a foreign language, which is very hard to find,” said the board’s chairwoman, Bonny Cain, who is also the superintendent of the Waco Independent School District.
The board’s vote ran contrary to the national best practices advanced by groups like the National Council on Teacher Quality, which released a report on teacher preparation in June. Arthur McKee, who led the study, challenged the notion that higher standards would worsen teacher shortages.
“One of the ways in which the profession of teaching is kept at the relatively lowly status that it unfortunately has is because we signal that anybody can become a teacher,” McKee said. “Anything that anyone can become is not going to be as valued as something that is hard to do.”
McKee said that while academic performance might not determine every future teacher’s effectiveness, it was reasonable to expect people entering a profession that is “inherently itself academic” to do well in school.
His group’s report gave failing grades across the board to alternative certification programs in Texas, identifying only one that researchers said prioritized “recruiting talented applicants over recruiting as many (paying) applicants as possible.”
But McKee said the issue was not necessarily the for-profit nature of the programs.
“It just raises the burden on a state to have high standards,” he said, adding, “As long as people feel like they can profit from meeting the standards, then they aren’t going to go above and beyond them.”
Correction: Due to state data that included redundant listings of individual donations, an earlier version of this story overestimated the totals of Reaser's political contributions.
Disclosure: Educate Texas and the Texas State University System are corporate sponsors of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Texas Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.