Why doesn't Iowa have more black teachers?

Urban schools cite barriers to out-of-state recruiting

Davenport school Superintendent Robert Kobylski faced hurdles to getting certified in Iowa despite holding certification
Davenport school Superintendent Robert Kobylski faced hurdles to getting certified in Iowa despite holding certifications in Wisconsin and Illinois and leading two districts in Wisconsin for over a decade. “The license process here doesn’t take into account experience or success,” he said. (Photo from Quad-City Times)

Most teachers are white women. This is true of the entire United States, and it’s certainly true in Iowa.

In the 2015-16 school year, 80 percent of teachers in U.S. public elementary and secondary schools were white, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

In Iowa in 2018, 92 percent of the teaching staffs in every district was white.

Districts are facing pressure to recruit, hire and retain more diverse teachers, especially if the district is in an urban area or has a diverse student body.

For low-income black students, having at least one black teacher in elementary school reduces their probability of dropping out of school by 29 percent, a 2017 Johns Hopkins study found. The same study showed black students with black teachers also had higher test scores.

Some of Iowa’s biggest, most diverse districts say they have an extra barrier to hiring those teachers: the licensure requirements set by the Iowa Board of Educational Examiners.

They say the requirements are overly burdensome for out-of-state candidates, forcing them to recruit only from in-state institutions, which themselves are working to increase the diversity of their graduates.

In 2018, for instance, the University of Northern Iowa graduated 793 students — undergraduate and graduate — with teaching credentials. Of those, the university reported only 54 minority students and another 34 of “unknown” race.


Colleges and universities are trying to recruit more diverse students to become teachers. School districts are trying to grow their own with programming and mentorship opportunities targeted at current employees and students.

But those programs take time. In the meantime, some districts say breaking down those barriers to hiring out-of-state teachers would help address demographic disparities between student populations and teaching staffs.

Licensure a priority?

Every year, the Iowa Association of School Boards calls on members to submit legislative resolutions for the board to use in advocacy. Not surprisingly, those are almost always about money, whether for technology, preschool, mental health, special education or wages.

In the 2019 legislative resolutions, just two of the association’s 31 items did not directly call for or reference funding, taxes, fees or increasing resources: giving school boards local control over their school calendars, and calling for the adoption of alternative teacher licensure options and creating reciprocity agreements with other states “so as to increase diversity among our certified teachers and administrators.”

Reciprocity agreements intend to allow flexibility for teachers moving across state lines but do not guarantee unconditional recognition. States still may require their own assessments, though some will waive that requirement if there is enough teaching experience.

Ultimately, the association didn’t select licensure as one of its legislative priorities. Still, spokeswoman Tammy Votava said, the association supported all 31 items.

Shanlee McNally, president of the Waterloo School Board, said the board submitted licensure to the association because members believed creating reciprocity agreements with other states would help districts “be flexible” in the face of a teaching shortage, both in Iowa and nationwide.

“It’s important to us to make sure we’re attracting and retaining the most highly qualified people. For us, if we’re limited by where that best candidate might be … having hands tied to only look at Iowa, that’s not a great way to go,” she said. “We feel it’s very important that our staff mirrors the population of our district.”

Waterloo’s students in 2018 were 47.7 percent white and 27.4 percent black. The teaching staff was 94 percent white and 4.6 percent black, according to the Iowa Department of Education.


The Quad-City Times reached out to five of Iowa’s largest and most diverse districts: Cedar Rapids, Davenport, Des Moines, Iowa City and Waterloo. All these had a student population in 2018 that was at least 18 percent black.

Only the Cedar Rapids Community School District did not respond to the newspaper’s inquiry.

None of the four districts that did respond think creating reciprocity agreements would entirely dissolve any barriers to diversifying their staff, but three said they felt it would be a major help. The fourth, Iowa City, said reciprocity did not come up often.

“I think it’d be a huge deal,” said Kingsley Botchway, chief officer of human resources and equity for the Waterloo school district, who formerly was director of equity and engagement for Iowa City schools and served on the Iowa City Council. “Iowa is a state that doesn’t have some of the attractions that other states have. We sell Iowa on the family, the values, the quality of life. But if coming here means you have to spend more money on classes … (licensure) is an added barrier,” he said.

Out-of-state transfers

Eleven members of the Board of Educational Examiners are appointed and a 12th comes from the Education Department. They’re charged with establishing and enforcing “rigorous standards” for Iowa’s education practitioners. In practice, that primarily pertains to the licensure system, including the consideration of waiver applications.

Like many states, Iowa requires teaching candidates to pass a mandatory assessment, which can be waived with three years of out-of-state teaching experience. However, an applicant also must complete at least 75 percent of the coursework for one of Iowa’s teaching endorsements, which includes everything from foreign languages to core subjects to talented and gifted programs to reading specializations.

Without the majority of an endorsement, no license can be issued unless a waiver request is reviewed and granted.

The director of the Iowa Board of Educational Examiners, Ann Lebo, responded to several phone messages and emails requesting a phone conversation with an email that referred to the board’s own website. While the newspaper’s requests included a list of questions, Lebo’s email did not respond to all of them, including inquiries about any recent discussions to revisit Iowa’s licensure process or for comment on some districts’ claims that it was influencing diversity efforts.

“I don’t believe BOEE is trying to intentionally hurt anything,” said Tiffany O’Hara, director of human resources for certified staff in Des Moines. “They’re holding a very rigorous standard for teaching, and I applaud them for that. We want the highest-caliber people in classrooms. But there has to be a little bit of exploration about what’s driving that.”

Iowa’s reciprocity practices are in line with the National Association of State Directors of Teacher Education and Certification, Lebo said via email. The association says states may have additional requirements for those coming from another jurisdiction, though the website says some jurisdictions consider themselves “full reciprocity” and do not have other requirements.


Iowa considers experience only if the state from which a teacher is transferring has a tiered system, which grants different licenses based on experience. Only about half the states have that.

While districts insisted reciprocity isn’t the same as “watering down” requirements, not everyone agrees.

Rep. Molly Donahue, D-Cedar Rapids, is strongly opposed to establishing reciprocity agreements without collaboration between schools to guarantee requirements are the same.

“As a schoolteacher, I understand the premise of wanting to have reciprocal relationships, but I’m in a position where I have watched for 29 years the erosion of our education,” said Donahue, who has taught for decades in Cedar Rapids. “Ultimately, everybody needs to raise their standards, including Iowa. … I don’t want Iowa to lower their standards just to accommodate someone from out of state coming in.”

Davenport diversity

Last year, the Davenport district recruited and hired a black teaching graduate from UNI, said Erica Goldstone, the district’s director of human resources and equity. This year, she was laid off along with 74 other teachers — mostly first-year teachers — in historic layoffs to comply with demands to cut $13 million from the budget.

Davenport is the third-largest district in the state, with a student body that’s 55.1 percent white and 19.2 percent black. Its teaching staff is 93.8 percent white and 2.1 percent black.

Davenport Community Schools were cited for disproportionality in 2018. According to the report from the Education Department, a review of district data showed a disproportionate number of students of color were identified for special education, suspended and expelled, or subjected to seclusion or restraint.

The corrective actions required by the state do not specifically refer to the district’s majority-white teaching staff. But the message was clear: Davenport had to retrain its teachers and enforce policies to ensure all students received the public education they’re promised, regardless of race. Professional development for all teachers on disproportionality, causes and consequences and remedial policies was required.

In May, board member Allison Beck asked about hiring more diverse staff during a panel discussion with district leadership.


“I know we’ve talked a lot about how to hire a more diverse certified staff, but are we changing our approach there?” she asked staff.

Until this year, Davenport had recruiting relationships with historically black colleges and universities, like Fisk University in Tennessee and Chicago State University, Goldstone said. But with massive budget cuts in the district, Goldstone said it wasn’t financially viable for the district to spend money on those recruiting efforts.

“It has not been successful,” Goldstone said. “For the students we have brought in, Iowa has been an impediment to get them licensed. If you are not here in the state of Iowa and you’re a young person that’s graduating, to go to a place and be told you have to take three or four additional classes, knowing if you stay in your own state, you don’t have to do that — it’s been problematic.”

Licensure affects school administrators, too. Davenport’s new superintendent, Robert Kobylski, also faced hurdles to getting certified in Iowa despite holding certifications in Wisconsin and Illinois and leading two districts in Wisconsin for over a decade.

“The license process here doesn’t take into account experience or success,” he said.

This past summer, he took five classes to address the anticipated gaps in required classwork. He also worked with the archivist at Loyola University, where he earned his doctorate, to find the course descriptions for the Board of Educational Examiners to compare with 2019 requirements.

After several licensure setbacks, Kobylski’s contract finally was approved Aug. 5.

Coming to Iowa

If a teacher or administrator is willing to go through the process of becoming certified, he or she usually has a specific reason for wanting to come to Iowa, multiple districts said.

“We may hire one or two or three who are willing to address the licensure barrier because they really want to be here, typically, for another reason,” Waterloo Superintendent Jane Lindaman said.


“I’m from Iowa,” said Natalie Whelchel, a preschool teacher in Iowa City. “I wanted to come back. If my family didn’t live here, I don’t think I would have moved back.”

After receiving a bachelor’s degree in art in-state, Whelchel became certified to teach in Texas, where she and her husband moved for his job. While she said the process was costlier than it should have been, she doesn’t think it’s unique to Iowa.

“I think it’s a national problem. It’s not just an Iowa problem. I looked at other states … even ones that don’t have a great reputation. Every state is hard. They all want your money. That’s how I feel.”

Joseph Parker, the principal of Waterloo East High School, wanted to move to the Midwest to be closer to family, Lindaman said.

“He ended up having to take six classes, which he’s doing right now,” she said. “The question that I had to ask him, even though we wanted him, was ‘Are you sure you want to do that?’ ”

Starts early

Competition to recruit a diversity of teachers is steep among districts, but competition among industries starts even earlier.

“The world is their oyster,” said Nancy Langguth, associate dean of the University of Iowa College of Education. “Engineering and business want to diversify their field. We all want to increase the diversity in our fields.”

Nationwide, Langguth said there’s a decline in enrollment in teacher education. Part of the problem is economic.

O’Hara, from the Des Moines district, said it isn’t uncommon for young teachers to have second jobs.


“If it’s the financial place, then the profession of education isn’t really even a profession anymore,” she said. “We have teachers held to a high standard, and we should, but it doesn’t always match what we give them for compensation.”

The problems of funding and asking teachers to take on new roles are not Iowa-specific. The struggles to recruit and retain teachers are national trends.

“I think the problems are bigger than just (licensure),” O’Hara said. “Several gateways need to open. Licensure would help. Funding would help. Stability would help.”

Growing your own

Regardless of feelings toward reciprocity agreements or licensure changes, all the educators interviewed said it was important to invest in “grow your own” programs to encourage their own students to take up the mantle of teaching.

Goldstone, of Davenport, was the only administrator interviewed to report that their district was not pursuing that sort of programming.

“We need to grow our own in Iowa if we want to fix some of the things in education,” Donahue said, emphasizing the importance of investing in Iowa’s African American and Latino communities. “We’ve done all kinds of recruiting, and it hasn’t worked.”

Part of the problem, she said, was that teachers plucked from out of state may struggle with getting to know the area or culture of Iowa and may feel like they lack a community among mostly white staff.

“I have 30 years of teaching experience. Does that make me experienced to walk into the rural southern United States? Probably not. I don’t know the area or the culture,” Donahue said. “I think there’s a lot more to it.”

Iowa City partners with the UI. In Waterloo, the district partnered with Wartburg College to work with staff who were paraeducators or teachers to help them become teachers or administrators. Lindaman said several still are principals years later.


Even with a consensus that “grow your own” programs are worth trying, the time required for those students to grow into teachers forces a waiting game that not all districts want to play.

“While we try to figure out how to work through the situation we have, we’d love to recruit teachers and administrators from out of state,” Botchway said.

Like last year, the statewide school board association is not making licensure a legislative priority. The Board of Educational Examiners did not respond to a question about where the discussion stood, but there doesn’t seem to be much desire to take on the issue of reciprocity.

“It’s definitely not a high priority. In the long run, there are very few people who do this,” Donahue said. “I don’t know right now how many people are coming to Iowa. Iowa isn’t someplace you want to come right now if you’re an educator. And I don’t think that has anything to do with reciprocity.”

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