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by Tom Steward in the Watchdog.org on Tuesday, July 7, 2015

It’s been 10 years since Kirstin Rogers moved to Minnesota in hopes of continuing her 12-year teaching career, but state regulations forced her out of the classroom.

Now, new legislation requires the Minnesota Board of Teaching to overhaul the arbitrary licensing process that too often keeps qualified, out-of-state educators like Rogers out of the schoolroom.

“I asked them, explain to me how I could have this many credits and not be qualified to teach? And their response was, ‘It doesn’t work like that in Minnesota.’ I was angry,” said Rogers, who earned a master’s degree and held endorsements from Utah to teach history, English, geography and reading.

The reforms mark the latest attempt to overhaul and increase accountability in Minnesota’s convoluted procedures for certifying out-of-state applicants. In years past, the state agency has stubbornly resisted implementing legislation to change the way it does business.

Now the teaching board faces a higher level of outside scrutiny. The Office of the Legislative Auditor has begun a 10-month investigation of the agency’s practices. Meantime, 20 out-of-state teachers — Kirstin Rogers among them — have sued the board for “consistently refusing to follow Minnesota law.”

“What would be ideal is if there was a clear cut path of what I would need to do. Because as I’m looking next year at getting a job, it would be nice to be able to teach like I used to, history and reading or just to have the option of what I’m qualified to teach,” said Rogers, who resides in Burnsville with her husband and two children.

Minnesota approves some 8,000 teaching licenses annually. Currently, many out-of-state applicants receive temporary teaching licenses, contingent on completing additional hours of remedial coursework and student teaching.

The legislative fixes require the teaching board to green light teachers with compatible out-of-state licenses, provide more transparency in the application process, reinstate a portfolio system to enable teachers to demonstrate practical skills and quit making experienced educators repeat student teaching.

The teachers union and the Board of Teaching opposed most changes, but school districts across the state embraced the effort to open the door to experienced educators, particularly with a shortage of applicants in some areas.

“You’re always looking for that one issue that will bring all of the districts together, and this is one of those,” said Kirk Schneidawind, executive director of the Minnesota School Boards Association. “We had districts from Thief River Falls to Minneapolis that had the same issue about finding qualified people, who were running into licensure barriers, when they’d come into Minnesota.”

Board of Teaching officials did not respond to Watchdog Minnesota Bureau inquiries, but have indicated the agency will move forward with changes. First up will be working on license reciprocity agreements for teaching in surrounding states.

Yet education reformers remain wary, given the teaching board’s recent track record. While buoyed by the licensure upgrades mandated by legislators, they continue to back the lawsuit moving forward in district court.

“The fact the Board has not in the past followed the laws set out by the Legislature is why the litigation continues to be so important. We just haven’t seen a willingness by the Board to do what they’re directed to do by the Legislature,” said Daniel Sellers, executive director of MinnCan, an education reform advocacy group. “So we’ll continue to put pressure on them through the courtroom until they do what they’re required to by law.”

The Board of Teaching argued at a June 25 hearing the case should be thrown out because teachers can appeal licensure decisions in administrative court.

“The mere fact that plaintiffs prefer to avoid the administrative process set out in Minnesota law does not give them the right to sidestep that process,” the state board argued in court documents.

But the teachers’ attorney said it may take a court order to force some reforms.

“The lawsuit alleges that the Board systematically fails to tell teachers why their application has been denied, what requirements they failed to satisfy, or how they might satisfy those requirements,” said Rhyddid Watkins, a Faegre Baker Daniels attorney who’s representing the teachers pro bono. “…I do not believe the Legislature addressed those concerns.”

As a teacher, Rogers knows history has a way of repeating itself when it comes to implementing licensure reform in Minnesota.

“All those years of teaching history and talking about people doing what is right, it’s just the current system is wrong,” Rogers said. “If my joining the lawsuit and speaking out and sharing my story helps other people, then I feel I should do that.”


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