Filling the Gaps: Easing Arizona’s Teacher Shortage with Emergency Substitute Certificates

By Ben Martin.

I suppose requiring all high school gym teachers to bench press 250 pounds might in some sense increase the quality, or at a minimum, the strength, of the average gym teacher. Requiring all high school English teachers to have a Ph.D. in literature might increase the quality of the average English teacher. But from a student’s perspective, raising the certification requirements naturally creates barriers to entry which might limit the number of teachers available and their relative tenures. I don’t think it’s controversial to say that education regulation needs to be fine-tuned towards both the number of available teachers and the qualifications of those teachers.

Arizona is facing a teacher shortage. In response, schools may scramble to fill vacancies with people who don’t meet standard teaching requirements, or not fill the jobs at all. To address the problems, on January 24, 2022, the Arizona State Board of Education made changes to substitute teacher regulations in Arizona. The move came in response to proposed changes from groups representing rural schools and school administrators. The Board’s Certification Advisory Committee (the “Committee”) unanimously approved the changes to the rule. Changes were motivated, according to the meeting summary, by schools’ struggles to find substitute teachers. These struggles were causing learning disruptions for students.

Amendments to Substitute Teaching Regulations

First, the new regulations remove the term limitation on substitute teachers. Substitute teachers can now teach “as long as is necessary” until a contract teacher is hired. Previously, substitute teachers could only teach for a 120-day term. The Committee found that the limitation was “burdensome and unnecessary,” considering the current difficulties schools face in locating both teachers and substitutes.

Second, the new regulations modify the Arizona Department of Education’s emergency substitute certificate. Superintendents of district or charter schools can demonstrate a need for and request these certificates, and such certification is limited to that school. Emergency substitute certificates now last two years, instead of one. This reduces the amount of paperwork that substitute teachers and school administrators need to complete.

Regulations around teaching credentials and public schools in Arizona fall within the jurisdiction of the Arizona State Board of Education, authorized through the Arizona Constitution. ARS §15-203 gives the State Board of Education authority to “[e]xercise general supervision over and regulate the conduct of the public school system and adopt any rules and policies it deems necessary to accomplish this purpose.”

The Board works within an additional statutory framework provided within ARS §15-501.01. It mandates types of teaching certificates that the board must adopt rules for, including a standard teaching certificate. The statute also says that a person who obtains an emergency substitute certificate does not need to acquire a bachelor’s degree. Essentially, by expanding the reach of an emergency substitute certificate, the Board is ensuring that more types of people are able to find work in the teaching profession.

ACC § 7-2-614 provides for emergency substitute certificates for PreK-12 schools. Requirements for initial issuance include (a) a high school diploma, (b) verification from the school district superintendent that an emergency employment situation exists, and (c) a valid fingerprint clearance card issued by the Arizona Department of Public Safety. The code also specifies that the certificate only allows the holder to substitute in the temporary absence of a regular contract teacher, and an emergency certificate holder cannot be assigned a contract position. Certificates can be reissued indefinitely, as long as reapplicants meet an academic course requirement. The Board’s recent amendment allows certain classroom management and ethics training to fulfill this requirement, thereby making reissuance requirements slightly more flexible.

Regulatory Balancing: Flexibility and Standards in Education Credentialing

Teacher regulations must split the difference between quality and availability. Arizona needs a certain number of teachers to fill and manage classrooms. Requiring all sixth grade teachers to have Ph.D.s, for example, would be a great way of ensuring that there would never be enough “qualified” teachers to fill classrooms. No one is suggesting we do that. The best regulations allow for the most flexibility to meet emergency situations, which is precisely what the Arizona Board of Education has done here. Critically, “emergency substitute certificates” can only be issued through verification from the school district superintendent that an emergency employment situation exists. And in an emergency employment situation, regulations that make certification more difficult or limited don’t seem to make much sense.

Additionally, removing the term limits on substitute teachers allows them to teach as long as necessary until a contract teacher is hired. Again, the ideal is for certified contract teachers to fill the role in a more permanent way, but the change allows schools the flexibility to fill classrooms with the people who are available.

Certifications and credentials matter. But there are times when those regulations simply don’t fit the reality of the situation. Limiting substitute days or emergency substitute terms in favor of contract teachers makes sense—until you can’t fill the full-time role. The changes the Arizona Board of Education made are a small step toward empowering schools to make the most of the people who are available.

"New Classroom at BES" by BES Photos is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0