More than one way to become a teacher. You don’t need a license at NC charter schools.

Kenny Felder doesn’t have a teaching license, but he has taught demanding math courses to students at Raleigh Charter High School for 20 years.

Felder is among the 30 percent of unlicensed teachers at Raleigh Charter, which is annually ranked among the top high schools in the nation. Raleigh Charter has used the flexibility North Carolina charter schools get to have up to half of their teachers not be licensed.

“What you’ll see from a lot of us here is we came over from other fields,” Felder said in an interview. “We came over from computer programming in my case and engineering in some cases.

“People are bringing into this their real-world experiences and that may be as or more beneficial than if they had spent their time getting their certification,” he said.

Teacher licensure has jumped back into the forefront as education leaders struggle to fill positions in North Carolina’s public schools. Some want to make it easier to hire licensed teachers from other states while others are pushing for more flexibility in hiring people who don’t have teaching licenses.

But Mark Jewell, president of the N.C. Association of Educators, says hiring teachers who aren’t licensed or who don’t meet current standards to get a North Carolina teaching license is the wrong move. Jewell says improving pay and working conditions that make some people not want to become teachers is part of the reason that the group is calling for a mass march in Raleigh on May 1.

“We believe that lowering the standards is not the option to get more teachers into our classrooms,” Jewell said. “We believe ... $35,000 state beginning salary and $52,000 ending salary isn’t going to recruit and retain teachers into the state of North Carolina.

“Ending master’s pay isn’t gong to bring teachers to the state of North Carolina. Not providing retirement health benefits isn’t going to bring teachers to the state of North Carolina.”

In North Carolina, teachers have to be licensed to teach at traditional public schools. People coming from other professions, called “lateral-entry teachers,” can get a provisional license to teach while they work to get their license.

But in charter schools, non-educators can skip the lateral-entry process. It’s one of the ways that taxpayer-funded charter schools are exempt from traditional public school requirements.

Even with the flexibility, charter schools focus on hiring licensed teachers because that’s what parents expect, said Terry Stoops, vice president of research for the John Locke Foundation, a think tank in Raleigh. Stoops’ wife, Jaime, is director of Carolina Charter Academy, a new charter school opening this year in Fuquay-Varina.

All of the teachers at Magellan Charter School in Raleigh are licensed. Mary Griffin, administrator of Magellan, said the school lists a teaching license as preferred in job descriptions.

“They will have had the theory, training and the practical experience,” Griffin said “But that’s not to say that someone who doesn’t have it can’t be a quality teacher too.”

A News & Observer analysis of state report card data from the 2016-17 school year showed no strong correlation between passing rates on state exams and the percentage of fully licensed teachers at charter schools. Charter schools with higher and lower percentages of licensed teachers were at both the high and low ranges for passing rates.

Supporters of the hiring flexibility say it broadens the ranks of qualified people who can become teachers at charter schools.

“There are ways to learn to be a good teacher without going to a teacher certification program,” said Lisa Huddleston, principal of Raleigh Charter.

Huddleston said she looks for people she thinks will be awesome teachers. For those non-teachers, she realizes she’ll have to provide them training on some things they missed by not having come from a traditional education route..

“Someone who is brand new and 22 with an education degree is very green and different than someone who is 40 and who has a lot of life experience but doesn’t have experience in education,” Huddleston said. “Both bring different sets of problems. But both bring strengths.”

Felder, the Raleigh Charter teacher, had worked in the software industry doing programming, sales and managing before deciding he wanted to become a math teacher.

Kenny Felder, a math teacher at Raleigh Charter High School, explains repeating decimals to calculus students on Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2019. Julia Wall jwall@newsobserver.com

“We all have our own styles, but I would be surprised if someone could watch us teach and based on that figure out which ones are certified and which ones are not,” Felder said. “I think it might be easier to tell which of us have been teaching for a long time and which ones have not.”

Some supporters of traditional public schools are highly critical of how charter schools can have so many unlicensed teachers.

“I find it strange that professional educators or people ostensibly concerned about the education of children would boast about the ability to staff a school with up to half of the faculty being unlicensed teachers,” said Lee Quinn, a humanities teacher at Broughton High School in Raleigh. “It’s another instance of charter supporters priding themselves on being exempt from rules and accountability that actual public schools must abide by to ensure that all of our children have equitable access to a quality education.

“Then again, charter supporters have never been that concerned with either ‘all children’ or equitable access,” Quinn added, “so I suppose bragging about unlicensed teachers is a pretty consistent message coming from them.”

But some teachers at traditional public schools say it might be a good thing to allow unlicensed teachers among their ranks. Kimberly Mayes, a science teacher at Cochrane Collegiate Academy in Charlotte, says the procedures for obtaining a teaching license are designed to streamline the hiring process for schools as opposed to making sure people are qualified.

“Charter schools are at an advantage in that instead of focusing on credentials to enter a classroom they are focused on general qualifications, and the ability to provide quality instruction and afterward data-backed results,” Mayes said. “Even when you look at the flexibility in their accountability reporting they tend to focus on relevance.

“The same flexibility should be implemented in public schools, if we want diverse and equitable education, we need to remove the barriers for diverse candidates,” she said.

The option to hire non-licensed teachers has been given to some traditional public schools. The Wake County school system says it’s hired a handful of non-certified teachers for its “restart schools.” a state program that gives some low-performing schools charter-like flexibility.

Stoops of the Locke Foundation said expanded flexibility in hiring people from alternative pathways and teachers from other states is the way the state should go.

“Research suggests the importance of having teachers of color,” Stoops said. “If we’re going to attract more teachers of color to the profession, it’s going to require more than just trying to enhance recruitment efforts.

“It’s going to require more teachers from other states and from other professions.”

Related stories from Raleigh News & Observer