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Government Licensing: The Enemy of Employment

Dr. Yates is Bradley Visiting Fellow at the Center for Economic Personalism at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty. He is the author of Civil Wrongs: What Went Wrong with Affirmative Action, published by ICS Press in 1994.

Not long ago I found myself without a job. The experience offered me some insight into the causes of unemployment in American society. I knew that occupational licensure was both a stumbling block to would-be entrepreneurs and a spur to joblessness because it prices entry into markets out of many people’s reach and creates disincentives to hire. I now have firsthand experience of how government bureaucracy systematically blocks individuals’ efforts to offer services to others in order to improve their own well-being.

When I found myself with no university teaching appointment last summer, I did what any responsible believer in individual liberty would do: I took stock of my strengths. I had seven years of full-time, university-level teaching experience, and additional years of part-time teaching. Though my doctorate is in philosophy, I had once been a science major with a year each of undergraduate mathematics, chemistry, geology, and physics. So I formulated my options and realized I had the background and skills to teach high school math and science. While there may be a glut of philosophy professors, there is a well-publicized shortage of math, science, and foreign-language teachers.

It is one thing to grasp a problem or situation intellectually. It is quite another to experience it in “real time.” What I learned from the experience of actually seeking a public-school teaching job made me recoil in horror.

“Are You Certified?”

The first thing I did was go to a local high school with my résumé, and transcript in hand and advertise my availability to teach math or science. I naively thought my experience as a teacher, combined with the course work clearly evident on my transcript, would make an impression. I’d hoped that all I would have to do is apply and, perhaps, take a test to demonstrate my grasp of the subject, and I’d be set. No sweat, right?


A receptionist immediately confronted me and asked, “Are you certified?” Knowing what I knew about government licensing, red flags went up at once. I replied that I wasn’t, and requested more information. I was directed to an office about a mile away. There, again, I was unable to get past the receptionist who asked the same question, as if by rote. Again I said no and requested an application for certification. She had none, but gave me the phone number of the teacher certification division of the South Carolina Department of Education.

I called and made an appointment. On the designated day I drove to the complex in downtown Columbia where a number of state offices are housed. The Department of Education takes up ten floors of the Rutledge Building; the teacher certification division is on the tenth floor. A women about my age gave me an informational package including brochures with titles like “Questions and Answers Related to Teacher Certification,” lists of instructions on “How to Apply for a South Carolina Teaching Credential,” request forms for official transcripts to be sent, a “Verification of Teaching Experience” form, a long application for an “Initial Teaching Credential,” another to take an Educational Testing Service standardized examination given four times a year, and so on. A final form required fingerprints of all ten fingers to be sent to the FBI; a memorandum identifying the specific legislation behind this requirement (something called Section 59-25-115) was included.

None of this is free. The fee for the initial application for certification is $25. The registration fee for the standardized test is $30; the fee for the test itself runs anywhere from $25 to $85, depending on the content. The fingerprint review costs an additional $24.

Because there are critical shortages of teachers in certain subjects, such as mathematics, the sciences, and foreign languages, the teacher certification division developed a Critical Need Certification Program. Since the purpose of that program is to get teachers into the classroom quicker, I initially opted to pursue it, thinking I could be teaching in less than a year. Wrong again. Despite the science and math on my transcript and my evident ability to research topics quickly, teaching in any of these areas required at least a bachelor’s degree, as well as a passing score on the equivalent National Teacher’s Examination. My degree was in philosophy; thus my seven-years-plus university-level teaching experience was meaningless. Even with a math degree, though, the most I could have gotten in one year was “conditional certification.”

More Requirements

A forest of additional requirements would have stood between conditional and actual certification, including (1) attendance at a pre-service institute at one of the local colleges “designed to prepare these prospective teachers for the opening of school and their initial involvement with students, peers and the instructional environment”; (2) attendance at eight once-a-month sessions during the school year “designed to provide a specific instruction component in addition to planning and interaction with other conditional teachers”; (3) attendance at an in-service institute the following summer “designed to address specific teaching techniques, classroom management, lab skills, etc.”; (4) attendance at four additional once-a-month sessions the following school year; and (5) completion of three education courses that address such matters as “student growth and development,” “exceptionalities [sic] of children,” “teaching of reading in the content area,” and so on. All that, of course, is in addition to the responsibilities teachers assume once they set foot in the classroom, including class preparations, grading, tutoring, informal counseling, and the like.

The government stipulates this forest of extra requirements to obtain an occupational license. Some of the language is sufficiently vague as to drive a one-time logic teacher like me up a wall. What, for example, is a “specific instruction component”? And what do they mean by “student growth and development”? Do they mean something besides learning the subject matter of a course? But that is the nature of bureaucratese. Remember, too, that the bureaucrats who originate those brainstorms draw higher salaries than do classroom teachers.

There are, of course, many would-be teachers willing to put up with this nonsense—they want to teach badly enough. That is fortunate, because without them there would be even greater shortages of qualified teachers. I decided I wasn’t one of them. My disdain for “educrats” is simply too great. While reviewing the licensing procedure I would have to go through to teach in a South Carolina high school, I thought of Francisco d’Anconia’s remark in Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged about how “when you see that in order to produce, you must obtain permission from men who produce nothing . . . and your laws don’t protect you against them but protect them against you . . . you may know that your society is doomed.”

Entrepreneurship, Not Bureaucracy

That may be overstating the case a little. But we know that public education is in trouble, and we know most of the reasons why. As we would expect from government bureaucracy, there are too many administrators and too few teachers, too much paperwork and too little teaching, too many discipline problems and too little freedom to do something about them, too much “self-esteem” psychobabble and too little encouragement of the values that lead to happy, successful lives. The source of the trouble: public education is not run by educators but heavy-handed bureaucrats obsessed with rules and procedures imposed from outside. For the bureaucrat, regulations matter, and for good reason: untying our hands would instantly send them scurrying to the want ads. As far as the actual business of educating goes, they have little to offer and they accomplish little except to get in the way— although they excel at interpreting every attempt to derail their gravy train as an attack on education itself.

The solution is obvious: get rid of the government licenses, get the bureaucrats out of the educational system, and sell the schools to private educational entrepreneurs to run as businesses. There is no danger that getting rid of government licensure in education will permit a flood of incompetent teachers into the classroom, for individual schools will have to compete for the best teachers and the best pupils. Reputations spread. Poor teachers will have to pursue other lines of work, and inefficient institutions will soon be out of business. Schools can administer tests and identify their own criteria for determining who is best, but there won’t be room for bureaucratic foolishness.

Thus not only will there be attainable teaching jobs, but the quality of education will go up across the board. So will salaries. Schools will have to offer teachers wages at market rates in order to attract the best, with salaries increasing in those areas of undersupply. Also, fewer administrators and less overhead will mean more money for teachers and their immediate needs. Instruction will proceed without the need to jump through bureaucratic hoops.

Most of this is probably obvious, and much is common knowledge. Let’s remember, though, that this is just one occupation. Today, most occupations are licensed, regulated, and ultimately controlled by the ever-present state. In some cases, the price tag for admission to the club is many times higher than it is for teaching. That gives us a ready explanation for why entrepreneurship is so difficult in today’s society, and why many people who want to work cannot find jobs. The question is: when are we going to do something about it?

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