Op-ed: Licensing hurts, not helps, Utahns

At a meeting earlier this month, the Utah State Board of Education discussed concerns that too many teachers in the state are unlicensed. A 2016 change by the board allowed Utah schools to hire people without licenses to overcome a shortage of teachers in Utah. One member of the board even raised concerns that students were put at risk because of the unlicensed teachers in the classroom.

Fortunately, there’s a wealth of research on licensing laws similar to those that Utah did away with in 2016. That research should alleviate the concerns of the Board of Education. And in our own research about licensing’s effects, we find that alternatives to licensing could provide the same benefits without the costs.

In addition to changes to licensing teachers, Utah has made other recent changes to occupational licensing. Last year, Utah became one of the first states to exempt military spouses in a variety of occupations from having to obtain a Utah license as long as they are licensed in another state. Unlike driver’s licenses, which are recognized across state lines, most licenses to practice certain trades aren’t portable between states. Military spouses are a perfect example of the problem caused by a lack of portability in licenses due to varying state regulations.

Kim Lopez, a licensed teacher whose husband works at Hill Air Force Base, has moved nine times in 20 years because of her husband’s various assignments. Lopez detailed the challenges she faces transferring credits and qualifying to teach in other states. When she moves to a new state and possesses a relevant license, Lopez said she still faces “additional testing, additional courses, all at a cost of time and money.”

Utah’s change with teachers is likely to benefit military spouses as well as students in rural areas that struggle to find and keep educators. Under the 2016 change that removed the requirement for a teaching license, school districts can make their own choices about whom to hire. This gives them more flexibility.

But worries about quality are still important. Education is a vital part of ensuring the success of students, and finding high-quality, qualified teachers is a worthy goal. Yet removing the requirement for a license is not equivalent to removing a requirement for quality. School administrators in charge of hiring teachers can still evaluate candidates based on their abilities and experience, whether they have a state license. Those at the local level can best judge candidates as they sit across the table from them in the interview process or observe the way they teach. They don’t need rules set by a state-level board to guide these decisions.

Research on licensing in other fields also suggests the relationship between quality and licensing is unclear. A study on the quality of service for opticians, for example, found no difference in quality (as measured by malpractice insurance premiums) between states that require a special license and those that don’t. But they did find that services provided by licensed opticians cost much more than those of unlicensed opticians, despite providing the same quality.

It’s also evident that licensing rules are a huge cost to the economy overall, so efforts to rein them in are likely to be beneficial. Our research shows that Utah loses more than 19,000 jobs and at least $80 million annually due to the negative economic effects of licensing.

Utah’s legislators could make several simple policy changes to improve the economy and expand opportunity. One simple improvement is agreeing to honor out-of-state licenses so more people like Lopez, whether they are in military families, can make an honest living. Another option is to move away from state licensing and toward state certifications that grant a legal right to claim a special title. For example, anyone in Utah can be a nutritionist, but only licensed individuals can call themselves dietitians, even though they provide similar services. Research suggests replacing licensing with state certifications can provide quality assurance without imposing higher costs to consumers.

The recent reforms for military families and teachers put Utah on the right path in reforming occupational licensing rules. Still, it’s clear there is room to do more. As Utah’s legislators meet, they should consider policies and reforms that allow people to more easily enter the workforce and contribute to Utah’s growing economy.

CGO scholars and fellows frequently comment on a variety of topics for the popular press. The views expressed therein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Center for Growth and Opportunity or the views of Utah State University.