The Push to Expand Access to Teacher Certification for DACAmented Educators
Some state laws make undocumented immigrants ineligible to teach—despite shortages of qualified educators.
Ever since she was a child, Ana knew she wanted to be the teacher she wished she had growing up—one who could relate to and support newcomers to the United States.
Ana and her family moved from Mexico to Pennsylvania when she was 3 years old. Growing up as an undocumented child, she seldom had teachers she could identify with or who shared her language, which made her early school years difficult. (One Day is identifying Ana by a pseudonym to protect her identity because of her immigration status.)
“Not only did I struggle with English, but I also got bullied a lot during my elementary years. I just wish that there was someone that saw and understood why I was crying during those years,” Ana said. “So I wanted to become that person.”
Now 19, Ana took her first steps toward becoming “that person” in fall 2020 when she enrolled in her college’s teacher preparation program. Everything was going according to plan until she found out that even though she was a Deferred Actions for Childhood Arrivals recipient, she wouldn’t be eligible to teach in Pennsylvania after graduating college.
Ana and her mother cried after learning that news. “Knowing that if I were to graduate right now, I wouldn't be able to get my teacher certification, was very upsetting.”
A growing number of states are waiving immigration status requirements for obtaining occupational certification, but not Pennsylvania. It is one of several states that require U.S. citizenship or lawful permanent residence—which excludes DACA recipients—to be eligible for occupational licenses such as teacher certification, according to the Higher Ed Immigration Portal, a project of the Presidents’ Alliance on Higher Education and Immigration. DACA, which former President Barack Obama established through executive action in 2012, provides temporary relief from deportation, grants the legal ability to work, and activates other benefits for eligible adults who were brought into the U.S. as children.
Only five states—California, Colorado, Illinois, Nevada, and New Jersey—have policies allowing individuals to receive teacher certification and all other forms of occupational licensure regardless of immigration status. A few states, such as New York, West Virginia, and Arkansas, have recently passed laws specifically allowing teacher certification eligibility for DACA recipients. Most states lack policies that expand access to occupational licensure, such as teacher certification for people without legal immigration status—even if they have completed all of the necessary testing and training. These laws persist despite an ongoing shortage of highly sought out teachers, including educators of color and bilingual educators.
Despite staffing woes, teachers-in-training like Ana are often left with a tough decision: leave their community and teach in another state or give up their dream of becoming an educator until the laws change.
Breaking Down Barriers to Teaching Amid Unprecedented Staff Shortages
For many advocates fighting to remove the barriers to teaching that DACA recipients face, the efforts aren’t just about providing fair opportunities to aspiring teachers. They are also about addressing the nation’s chronic teacher shortage, which is disproportionately impacting schools serving low-income students and students of color according to a 2020 report by the Economic Policy Institute.
Although predictions of a mass exodus of teachers leaving the field during the COVID-19 pandemic have proven to be overblown, the pool of qualified candidates that districts can hire from has shrunk significantly in recent years. The number of students enrolled in teacher preparation programs has dropped by one-third since 2010, according to a 2019 report from the Center for American Progress.
“A lot of professors don't know how to help me out; (they) don't know how to handle the situation”
In some states, the decline in the number of teacher candidates is especially dire. Oklahoma has seen enrollment in teacher preparation programs drop by 80% since 2010, according to the CAP report. Only 2,258 students completed teacher training programs in Michigan from 2019-20—fewer than half the number who did in 2013-14, according to a recent report by the Michigan Department of Education.
Some states seeking to bolster the pipeline of qualified educators have looked to expand teacher certification access for DACA recipients as one potential solution. After seeing a 49% drop in the number of candidates completing teacher preparation programs between 2009 to 2018, New Jersey lawmakers passed Senate Bill 2455. The new law, signed by Gov. Phil Murphy in September 2020, allows individuals to seek professional and occupational licensing regardless of immigration status.
“This will help remove barriers that limit the ability of trained professionals to perform jobs they are qualified for,” Sen. Joe Cryan, one of the bill’s primary sponsors, said in a news release. One Day requested information about the number of DACA recipient educators in New Jersey since the law’s passage but has not received this information from the state Education Department.
In April, Arkansas lawmakers passed Act 746, which makes the state’s nearly 5,000 DACA recipients eligible to obtain occupational licensure, including teacher certification. “Arkansas has seen workforce shortages in several of the fields addressed…” Rep. Clint Penzo, the lead sponsor of Act 746, told the Arkansas Times. “This will help fill these shortages with skilled professionals.”
“This Is a Little-Known Issue. A Lot of People Have No Idea”
The complicated state of teacher certification for DACA recipients is a fairly obscure issue, even among those in education. Ana had only learned about Pennsylvania’s restrictions after reading an Instagram post by Selenia Tello, a teacher and mentor she knew from the town where she grew up. Tello’s post noted the barriers to teacher certification that DACAmented educators face, especially in Pennsylvania. After seeing the post, Ana asked Tello: “Is this really true?”
“This is a little-known issue,” Tello recalled telling Ana. “A lot of people have no idea.”
The professors and administrators at Ana’s education program—including her advisor—weren’t aware of the state’s restrictions either. “A lot of professors don't know how to help me out; (they) don't know how to handle the situation,” Ana said.
Lack of information and support about occupational licensure is just one of many challenges that DACA recipients face in their pursuit of higher education and employment. Many states also limit DACA recipients’ ability to access in-state tuition and state financial aid at public universities.
Another challenge: The future of the DACA program remains uncertain. In 2017, former President Donald Trump rescinded DACA. Multiple legal battles ensued until 2020 when the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in favor of allowing DACA to continue. But the program continues to face uncertainty and legal challenges. In July 2021, a Texas judge suspended the program once more by declaring it unconstitutional. That ruling stops approval of first-time DACA applications but not renewals.
All of this uncertainty puts DACA recipients at risk, said Veronica Garcia, an attorney with the Immigrant Legal Resource Center. “We have a lot of individuals who have been contributing to this nation, not only economically, but also to their communities, to these different professions,” Garcia said. “If there's not a solution to give them protection, then they are basically left without the ability to continue to work in these professions.”
To finally solve this problem, Garcia stresses the importance of advocating for Congress to create a permanent solution that provides a pathway to citizenship for DACA recipients and undocumented individuals contributing to society.
Raising Awareness About the Barriers DACAmented Educators Face
In the absence of comprehensive federal immigration legislation, DACA recipients and advocates are hoping to expand access to occupational licensure. They’re working to raise awareness around the issue and gain the attention of local and state policymakers.
Pennsylvania Sen. Judith Schwank first learned about this licensure issue years ago during a meeting hosted by the Greater Reading Immigration Project, a volunteer-led organization focused on immigration challenges. At the meeting, a young DACA recipient shared that she earned a degree in teaching at Kutztown University of Pennsylvania, Schwank said. “She went to apply for a job and realized that she could not get a teaching certificate in Pennsylvania.”
Since then, Schwank has met with other DACA recipients who say they would like to teach in the communities where they grew up in Pennsylvania, but can’t because of state laws. Many opt to look for jobs in nearby New Jersey or in other states where they can receive occupational licensure regardless of their immigration status.
“We are trying to fix the teacher shortage by importing teachers from other states while we have people who are already living in Pennsylvania who are ready, willing, and capable of teaching in our schools, but we aren’t letting them.”
That was the case for Reyna Sosa, who grew up and attended college in Pennsylvania. She learned about Pennsylvania’s teacher certification restrictions during her last semester before graduation—when she was about to begin student teaching.
“That was a hard, hard pill to swallow,” Sosa said. “I thought about quitting. I was like, ‘What's the point?’” Instead, Sosa finished student teaching, applied to Teach For America, and completed her service in Las Vegas, where individuals can teach regardless of immigration status.
But Sosa missed Pennsylvania, her home. “I wanted to be closer to my family,” she said.
Ultimately, Sosa did get closer to home and her dream even though the law has not changed: She is now teaching in a majority Spanish-speaking community in New Jersey. But she still wishes she could teach in the Pennsylvania district she attended as a child.
The Fight to Change Pennsylvania’s Teacher Certification Laws
To expand access to teacher certification in Pennsylvania, which is struggling to recruit teachers, Schwank has introduced several bills. In 2020, she authored Senate Bill 165, which would remove barriers to educator certification for DACA recipients in her state. The Pennsylvania legislative session ended Dec. 15, and Schwank’s bill was not up for consideration; it died in committee. (She introduced a similar bill in 2019, but it also died in committee.)
The number of teacher certifications issued by the state Education Department dropped by about 62% from 2010-11 school year to 2017-18, according to a report by the General Assembly of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania’s Joint State Government Commission.
“It just seemed so ridiculous to me that we are not using the talent that we have helped produce here in the Commonwealth to help us to continue to grow,” Schwank said. “These kids are working hard, they're trying to succeed. Their dreams and aspirations can only help the Commonwealth.”
Schwank also hoped SB 165 could address another challenge that Pennsylvania school districts face: gaps in teacher diversity. Only 6% of teachers in the state identified as people of color in the 2019-2020 school year. That same year, 36% of students enrolled in the state’s schools were people of color, according to the nonprofit organization Research For Action.
Those numbers match the need Selenia Tello saw as a first-year teacher at a Pennsylvania school that serves large numbers of Latinx students and families. “I was one of maybe two or three teachers who spoke Spanish, and I would constantly be getting calls to the office to translate,” Tello said. “In recent years, my principal has hired more teachers who are able to speak Spanish and that has really helped when it comes to translation.”
But Schwank said she faces “a very uphill road” for her bill to become law because of the number of lawmakers “who are not pro-immigration.” In the 2020-21 Pennsylvania legislative session alone, a number of bills were introduced that aimed at curtailing the rights of people without legal immigration status.
On Aug. 30, the Pennsylvania House State Government Committee held a series of hearings on immigration-related legislation that came under criticism by the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania for being “anti-immigrant.” The legislation included issuing separate birth certificates for children born in the United States to parents without legal immigration status, criminalizing the transportation of undocumented immigrants, and requiring public aid recipients to show government-issued identification before receiving benefits.
“I’m not able to even get this bill considered in committee even though I've tried numerous times,” Schwank said.
In October, Schwank introduced an amendment to Senate Bill 224, a bill that aims to make it easier for out-of-state teachers to become certified to teach in Pennsylvania in an effort to address the teacher shortage. Her amendment proposed that the state allow DACA recipients to receive teaching certifications as well.
“We are trying to fix the teacher shortage by importing teachers from other states while we have people who are already living in Pennsylvania who are ready, willing, and capable of teaching in our schools, but we aren’t letting them,” Schwank said in a statement. “That doesn’t make sense to me. We should be doing both.”
The amendment failed by a vote of 21-27, but Schwank said she is determined to keep trying. “I'm just going to keep working to try to help make this happen.”
What’s Lost When DACA Recipients Are Barred From Teaching
For Reyna Sosa, knowing that schools are missing out on the many assets that educators under DACA bring to the classroom is “extremely frustrating and disheartening.”
“We have a lot to offer. We have a lot to bring,” said Sosa, who teaches special education in New Jersey because her home state of Pennsylvania does not license DACAmented teachers.
“We are educating the future. Individually, I want to make a difference and support and help this country. And the best way that I can think that I can do that is in the classroom.”
It is also frustrating, Sosa said, to see states continue to overlook DACA recipients through a worsening teacher shortage that is taking its toll on school communities across the nation. “Kids are not getting the support they deserve and should be getting because there's not enough teachers,” she added. “It just hurts everybody in education.”
Despite the unknowns, Ana still plans to teach after graduation in 2024. She will have to move somewhere else to work if Pennsylvania’s licensure laws don’t change before then. But giving up her dream isn’t an option, she explained, even if she has to relocate.
"I'm a first-generation student,” Ana said. “So this is a dream, not only for me but for my family."