Following several years of debate, in 2011 the Minnesota Legislature approved alternative teacher licensing options. Lawmakers returned to the issue in 2015 to strengthen and add more specifics to the law.
But not everyone was satisfied. Last spring, a group of educators sued the state Board of Teaching, arguing that it still arbitrarily denied licenses to qualified teachers — mostly from out of state. And in late December, a Ramsey County District Court judge ruled that the board violated state law when it stopped accepting licensing applications by portfolio in 2012. The portfolio process looks at experience and training in making licensing decisions if prospective teachers don’t meet Minnesota’s traditional licensing requirements.
This week, the board said it would appeal the judge’s order, arguing that the court has no jurisdiction over licensing.
Buried in that quagmire are these basics: The Board of Teaching and the Minnesota Department of Education (MDE) both have some authority over alternative licensure. As the Star Tribune Editorial Board has previously argued, the process still needs to be streamlined and be more consistently applied. The responsibilities between the two agencies should be clarified so that neither can simply blame the other when licenses are held up or improperly denied.
MDE officials report that they are in conversations with the board and that they have opened a window for portfolio applications. As of this week, 100 applicants have submitted their intent to apply. But that process must align with board rules.
Though the Legislature set a Jan. 1, 2016, deadline for the board to revise its licensing rules, the update is not expected to be completed until spring. A spokesperson has defended the board’s actions, arguing that it doesn’t oppose improving licensing but that it has suspended portfolio applications because of limited resources.
Out-of-state educators who want to teach in Minnesota must apply for a license with MDE. The 11-member Board of Teaching — a mix of teachers, administrators and members of the public — sets the guidelines for getting a license. Board representatives have said that their primary mission is to assure that teachers are qualified.
To that end, all candidates are required to take a test — whether they are educated in a traditional school of education or an alternative training program such as Teach for America, or whether they seek licensure through the portfolio process.
Here’s why this matters: An MDE survey on teacher supply and demand found that 65 percent of school administrators said licensing and other rules are barriers to hiring effective teachers, while 87 percent said the requirements interfere with retaining good educators. School district hiring officers say they expect that vacancies in hard-to-fill areas such as math, chemistry, physical science and special education will only increase if the state fails to make licensure less complicated and less expensive.
As a result of legislator concerns and the lawsuit, the Office of the Legislative Auditor is examining the roles of the two agencies and how they overlap. That audit is expected to be released in February.
In the meantime, the two agencies should work harder to comply with the spirit and intent of the alternative teacher licensing rules — and make needed adjustments sooner rather than later.