WISCONSIN — Wisconsin Policy Forum’s latest report suggested the state’s schools are dealing with growing challenges related to staff shortages and high turnovers.

Emergency teaching licenses have practically tripled in the last decade.

During the 2012-13 school year, the state Department of Public Instruction issued 1,125 emergency licenses to teach in Wisconsin. By the 2021-22 school year, the department issued 3,197 emergency licenses — a 184.2% increase.

These licenses are issued by DPI and help schools stay staffed; they are most commonly used in short-term or emergency situations. When a school district cannot find a teacher who is licensed by DPI, they have an option to hire someone who is unlicensed. That person then applies for an emergency license, which allows them to teach under certain conditions or stipulations.

In addition to teachers, the licenses can be used by counselors, social workers, librarians and school administrators. 

People can hold more than one license. During the 2012-13 school year, 1,076 Wisconsinites held licenses. During the 2021-22 school year, 2,854 Wisconsinites held licenses, compared to 2,794 the previous year.

But that number is actually higher than reported. DPI started offering a three-year emergency license in 2018, but that license is only reported for the year it’s issued. During the 2021-22 school year, 209 three-year licenses were issued — 6.5% of all emergency licenses that year.

The purpose of the three-year license “is to provide established teachers with sufficient time to meet all of the requirements of a license in a new subject area,” the Wisconsin Policy Forum explained.

Research from the Wisconsin Policy Forum showed that many people keep their emergency teaching licenses for multiple years. Since the 2016-17 school year, about 30% of teachers with emergency licenses had one the year before. About 10% had one the last two years.

The Wisconsin Policy Forum said most people acquire repeat emergency licenses for the same subject area. This implies that emergency licenses are being used well beyond the short term, as intended.

“Districts have faced longstanding challenges filling classrooms with qualified staff, particularly in specialty subjects, but concerns about teacher shortages in Wisconsin have grown far more prevalent in recent years,” the Wisconsin Policy Forum said. “The rise in emergency licenses substantiates these growing concerns by suggesting that districts are encountering greater difficulties in hiring enough teachers through the traditional routes, particularly in areas such as special education.”

While the number of license holders has grown, so has the number of schools in need. During the 2012-13 school year, 303 Wisconsin school districts employed staff with emergency licenses. By the 2021-22 school year, that number rose to 406. There are 421 public school districts in Wisconsin, 368 of which employed staff with emergency licenses. The Wisconsin Policy Forum said that is “consistent with rising workforce challenges for the districts.”

Schools in rural and urban areas of the state are most likely to utilize emergency licenses. The Wisconsin Policy Forum said this has been consistent throughout the last decade.

Across the state, urban schools account for about 42% of emergency licenses. Suburban schools account for 14%, while town schools count for 7%. Rural schools account for 33% of emergency licenses. The final 4% are attributed to school districts with a combination of locales or unlisted settings.

“This consistency indicates that workforce issues causing a rise in emergency licensures are not increasing disproportionately in certain geographic types of districts. However, as the numbers above show, some districts rely on emergency licenses more than others,” the Wisconsin Policy Forum said.

“In particular, when compared to the distribution of teaching positions in the state, the share of emergency licenses is disproportionately higher than expected for urban schools and lower than expected for suburban schools. Schools in towns and rural areas have slightly smaller than expected proportions of emergency licenses based on the number of positions in those districts,” the Wisconsin Policy Forum said.

Emergency licenses are most commonly used in three subject areas: Cross-Categorical Special Education, Regular Education and Elementary and Middle Education. Those three combined made up 61.5% of the increases in emergency licenses over the last decade.

In the 2012-13 school year, DPI issued 525 licenses for Cross-Categorical Special Education. In the 2021-22 school year, the department issued 761.

The Cross-Categorical Special Education license is needed for teachers who work with students with disabilities who have Individualized Education Programs. During the 2021-22 school year, only 8.1% of teachers in those positions held licenses. Most of the people in those positions held emergency licenses instead.

Regular Education emergency licenses jumped from 26 in the 2012-2013 school year to 501 during the 2021-22 school year.

During the 2021-22 school year, DPI issued 275 Elementary and Middle Education emergency licenses, used for teachers who work in elementary and middle school classrooms. That license category was introduced in the 20219-20 school year.

“These three license categories are intended to be used by career teachers for multiple years. The rise in their use suggests that a growing number of teachers are entering classrooms before they meet the requirements for a regular license,” the Wisconsin Policy Forum said. “Special education in particular appears to be an area of shortage for districts, leading them to rely upon emergency licenses to fill positions.”

The Wisconsin Policy Forum noted that emergency teaching licenses can act as a way to train new teachers. Instead of completing an education degree first, candidates are finding a job and then getting a license and education. This means, potentially, there could be fewer teachers who are not formally trained. However, these can also be used for teachers who move from out of state and need to meet state-specific criteria, but are well-trained already.

Read the full report below:  

More schools turn to short-term licenses by Aly Prouty on Scribd

Editor's note: A previous version of this story said that during the 2012-13 school year, 202 Wisconsin school districts employed staff with emergency licenses. The story has been corrected to say that 303 Wisconsin school districts employed staff with emergency licenses that year. (March 20, 2023).


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