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State struggles with teacher license backlog

A backlog of state educator license applications means teachers are waiting up to five months for the credentials they need to legally hold a classroom job in Colorado.

And the busy season for the Colorado Department of Education’s Licensing Unit is about to hit, as thousands of new teachers graduate from college this spring and seek their initial licenses to take their places in their first classrooms come fall.

It’s a situation that has been building for some time, but it has become acute in the past two years.

The reasons for the backlog, according to state officials – a surge in the number of people applying for teacher licenses combined with an antiquated application approval system, and legislation that made the CDE responsible for additional screening duties but provided no extra funding to hire the people to do the work.

“This is most impactful for those requesting an initial license or those applying for the first time in Colorado,” said Jami Goetz, executive director of the Office of Professional Services and Educator Licensing for CDE. “They can’t start teaching – or shouldn’t – until they have their license in hand.

“If they’re renewing, then as long as they’ve submitted their renewal application before the old one expires, their license is considered good. They don’t have to be removed from the classroom. But the new teachers are our biggest concern.”

That’s small comfort to veteran Durango High School teacher Tammy Schreiner, who was suspended from her job for three days in January because her license lapsed and the paperwork she had submitted in November hadn’t yet worked its way through the system.

She did receive a renewal of her certification – teachers must be both licensed and certified in a specialty area – but she was flummoxed that the more critical license renewal didn’t happen.

After the online application system proved balky and her emails and faxes to the CDE went unreturned, Schreiner finally drove to Denver to deal with the snafu in person. With the help of a Colorado Education Association staffer familiar with the licensing backlog, she was able to negotiate the barriers and left Denver with her license in hand.

But she’s still steamed.

“I understand the necessity for certification,” she said. “I understand that it is my responsibility to get all the pertinent information to CDE.

“I do not understand why I was never allowed to communicate with CDE directly. I do not understand why CDE never contacted me concerning any of the questions I had, which would have avoided the situation. I do not know why I had to drive 400 miles to rectify the situation. I do not know why my government has not addressed CDE’s need for more staff and funding.”

Caught in licensing limbo

Schreiner’s not the only teacher at her school to be caught in licensing limbo.

“Nothing will solve the problem until we have sufficient people and get our new online application system completely up and running.”
— Jami Goetz, CDE“One of the young teachers we want to retain must be kept on sub pay – probably for the rest of the year – because she is waiting for her certification,” she said.

“The sub who took over my position lost two potential jobs because he was waiting on certification. I have deduced that if young degreed teachers graduate in May, they will not be able to be employed for over a year because all the districts hire in the summer. Then, they can’t seek employment as a substitute until at least December or January.”

Goetz is sympathetic. She hears every day from teachers, student teachers and school districts are panicked about the situation. Her office has responded by throwing staff at the most urgent areas, and has finally gotten around to reviewing those applications that came in in January.

But by focusing concentration on one area – the office processes more than 22 different types of educator licenses – it means backups will develop elsewhere. In total, more than 38,000 licenses will be processed this year, up from 34,000 in 2007.

“Nothing will solve the problem until we have sufficient people and get our new online application system completely up and running,” she said.

Law changes led to backlog

Goetz traces the beginnings of the backlog to 2003, when the legislature passed a bill, HB03-1114, that required all school personnel to submit fingerprints to the Colorado Bureau of Investigation and undergo a comprehensive background check. CDE was given responsibility for reviewing this information and alerting school officials if any felons were found.

But anything turned up in the CBI investigation – from serious felonies to minor scrapes with the law – gets forwarded to Goetz’ office. And each one – about 2,000 a year – must be investigated. Yet CDE was given funding only for an additional part-time staffer working about 10 hours a week.

“There are over 50,000 licensed teachers in Colorado, and we process about 36,000 to 38,000 licenses every year,” she said. “Of those, only about 2,000 require any type of investigative background check.

“Most are to clear minor things people did when they were young and stupid. By and large, people who try to become teachers are really very good people. But because of the way the law is written, we need to check.”

In addition, a law passed in 2008, HB08-1344, required CDE to provide criminal history information on education employees within 10 business days of receiving an inquiry from a school district or charter school.

Goetz says there are about 253,000 names in the state’s educator licensing database. The office gets a daily report from law enforcement anytime one of those 253,000 people has an encounter with police.

“It could be as simple as a barking dog, but we get those on a daily basis,” she said. “And because we don’t know if those persons are working in this state or not, we’re obligated to send all that information out to every school district and charter school in the state.”

CDE initially asked for three more full-time staff members to keep track of the extra paperwork, but those extra positions weren’t funded in the legislation. The department did get supplemental funding from the legislature’s Joint Budget Committee in 2009, but the request for more money was denied in 2010.

New online system should help

As the backlog of applications began to grow in 2008, CDE moved to streamline things and switch to an online application process. But they couldn’t afford to build a new online application system from scratch so it’s being added on top of the existing system. As of the end of last year, CDE had spent nearly $300,000 to get the system up and running, but it’s going online in chunks, not all at once.

“We plan to have it running for all application types by the first of July,” Goetz said. “But to be really fully functional – all the bells and whistles to make it clean and easy to use – that will require some customization, which will take another six months after that.”

Beyond the long-anticipated online application system, there are other potential fixes to the problem in the works.

In February, CDE increased the fees for processing license applications from $60 to $80. The extra funds may eventually help the department hire more staff to whittle down the license backlog.

Also, a bill, HB 1201, was introduced this year to streamline the teacher licensure process. It would do three things:

  • It would relieve the department of the necessity of hand-checking to see if every applicant for license renewal actually completed the coursework they claimed to have completed. Instead, the CDE would accept affidavits from applicants saying they had.
  • It would eliminate checking to make sure teachers applying for license renewal are in the country legally.
  • It would give the CDE the continuous authority to spend whatever extra money is generated by the higher license fees. CDE currently can spend that money only with the express approval of the legislature.

“The notion of continuous spending authority is not something the legislature likes because it does take away some of their authority,” said Anne Barkis, CDE’s legislative liaison. “The original bill was amended to provide continuous spending authority for just three years, and the department must report on those funds to the General Assembly, and any new hires can’t be FTEs (full-time employees), but only contract employees.”

The amended bill passed the House of Representatives earlier this month, and now heads to the Senate.

The bill’s House sponsor, Rep. Millie Hamner, knows something about educator license backlogs. Before being appointed to the House last December, she was the superintendent of Summit County schools.

“Millie Hamner came to us and said this backlog was a problem and that she wanted to find a bill to address it,” Barkis said.

Coming weeks will bring fresh challenges

In the meantime, Goetz’ staff is girding for the expected onslaught of 5,000 to 7,000 new graduates’ license applications that will begin arriving in the next few weeks, along with the summertime surge in veteran teacher license renewal applications.

“They told me to expect to wait 20 weeks to get my license … but I can’t walk into a classroom in the fall without that …”
— Melissa Pomponio, teacherMelissa Pomponio wrapped up her student teaching in Bill Reed Middle School in Loveland in February. While she would like to be able to work as a substitute teacher through the end of the school year, that’s not possible because she doesn’t yet have her license.

She’s had transcripts sent to CDE and she’s filled out all the paperwork needed for her license application, but she acknowledged that she’s worried.

“They told me to expect to wait 20 weeks to get my license, which is ridiculous,” she said.

When she called to check to make sure all the paperwork was in order, a recording told her the wait time to talk to someone would be in excess of an hour.

“I hung up and said ‘Fine, I’ll just pray that it’s OK.’ ”

Her plan is to hunt for a job over the summer and hope that school districts will be lenient about requiring that she possess an actual license, rather than a pending license, before interviewing her.

“But I can’t walk into a classroom in the fall without that license,” she said.

Growth in educator license applications processed annually by state officials

Rebecca Jones can be reached at

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