Michelle Hughes was expecting a baby when she decided she wanted to leave California's Bay Area to teach in Minnesota.
Her son is now 2, and she is still not licensed to teach in the state.
"I should have full licensure at this point," Hughes said. "It's a mess. There is no way it should take this long."
It is an issue that for years has frustrated teachers, administrators who want to hire them and legislators who have tried to tear down licensing barriers. Officials who oversee the system face growing pressure from state lawmakers as well as a lawsuit that threatens to upend the licensing process.
"I disagree that it is as widespread of an issue that it has been made to seem," said Erin Doan, the Board of Teaching's executive director.
Doan said the procedures may be confusing to out-of-state teachers but that states across the country are grappling with how to make licensing more transparent for outside applicants.
"It's the same discussion that is being had everywhere," Doan said. "It's made worse by the fact that we have this strange system."
Out-of-state educators who want to teach in Minnesota must apply for a license with the Department of Education. The 11-member Board of Teaching — a mix of teachers, administrators and members of the public — sets the rules and guidelines for getting a license. The board is charged with ensuring that Minnesota teachers are of the highest caliber.
Recruiters and educators say the board has not set clear and consistent expectations for that process. They also say the uncertainty has deterred high-quality, midcareer educators and teachers of color from applying for jobs in the state.
The board issued 3,658 licenses in the 2013-14 school year to applicants trained in other states. However, those licenses also include short-term licenses, not only the standard five-year license that most teachers seek.
In Hughes' case, her 13 years of experience in special education and training with Reading Recovery — a literacy program founded in 1984 — are not enough to satisfy the Minnesota Department of Education and the state's Board of Teaching.
She was asked to send college transcripts, letters of recommendation and was even told she needed to become a student teacher — the kind of unpaid training typically reserved for new college graduates — before receiving credentials. When she finally received a temporary special education license in May 2015, it expired one month after it was issued.
During the 2015 Legislative session, lawmakers passed a series of changes that require the Board of Teaching to clarify licensure rules by Jan. 1, 2016. The Legislature also told the board that it cannot require student teaching for applicants with more than two years of experience.
Critics of the system are not optimistic that the state's action will change anything. The Legislature passed similar laws in 2011, but the Board of Teaching did not change its practices. They also say the board has made little progress in implementing the new rules, a procedure that requires a lengthy public comment period.
"We are not seeing a change yet," said Eli Kramer, executive director of Hiawatha Academies, a network of charter schools that focuses on low-income and minority students. "The Legislature spoke pretty clearly about this. I want to remain optimistic that the Board of Teaching will take the bold action that the legislature called for."
Kramer said it is important for the school to have a teaching force that reflects the student population. But teachers of color make up only 3 percent of the 58,000 teachers in the state.
"There are current structures and policies in place that make it difficult to create an educator workforce that is diverse, that reflects the diversity of our student," Kramer said. "We have to do better than that."
Doan said she is not confident the board will meet the Legislature's deadline, but they hope to be close. "We won't be done by Jan. 1," she said.
The board's sluggish response prompted a lawsuit by Hughes and three others.
The lawsuit, filed in April, contends the board denies licenses to well-qualified candidates, often without explanation.
There are now 20 litigants with 10 to 40 years of experience in the classroom. The majority of the plaintiffs are licensed in other states, but a few are already licensed to teach in Minnesota but cannot get a license to teach another subject or grade level.
Rhyddid Watkins, the attorney representing the teachers, is asking that the board allow out-of-state teachers to apply for a license by submitting a portfolio. If a teacher is denied a license, the board would need to detail why a license was denied, and a teacher should have the right to an administrative hearing if a license is not granted.
"The board of teachers has assured us they will make all the changes we are requesting," Watkins said. "I am very skeptical, to be very frank."
Doan and others say the board is not the only entity that should take the blame for the complicated licensing system. The Minnesota Department of Education oversees many aspects of licensing.
As a result of the lawsuit and the uproar at the Capitol, the state's Legislative Auditor will examine how the roles of the two organizations overlap. The auditor will also review whether the two entities are clear, consistent and transparent when licensing teachers.
The audit will be completed by early 2016.
Some educators remain in limbo while the lawsuit moves through court and the board works on setting new rules.
Candace Burckhardt is a special education administrator at Hiawatha Academies. She is waiting to receive her license in special education so she can work directly with families and students. Right now, she can only oversee special education programs, but not work directly with students.
Burckhardt was a licensed teacher in Wisconsin and in Indiana. She had a clear checklist of requirements from both states. It took her 15 days to get licensed in Wisconsin and eight days in Indiana.
It's been three months in Minnesota, and she still doesn't have her credentials. Worse, she says, she has no idea where her application stands.
"Last I heard they needed additional information," Burckhardt said. "But it's unclear what that information might be."
Alejandra Matos • 612-673-4028