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by Beena Raghavendran in the Star Tribune on Thursday, March 3, 2016

Minnesota’s embattled system for licensing teachers is “broken and needs significant changes,” according to a new report from the legislative auditor’s office released Friday.

The report reveals what frustrated teachers and their advocates have been saying for years: The process that licenses teachers — many from out-of-state hoping to teach in Minnesota — is convoluted with blurry lines of responsibility that complicate the licensure process.

To solve the confusion, the report suggested large-scale reforms ranging from rewriting bewildering state laws to a recommendation that all licensing-related activities come under one state agency. The report concludes that some of the much-criticized practices might not conform with state law.

Representatives of the Board of Teaching, which establishes licensure requirements, and the Minnesota Department of Education, which issues teacher licenses, both said at a hearing Friday that they agree with the report’s findings and will work to fix the confusion within the process.

The issue erupted years ago after complaints from seasoned teachers from out of state who found Minnesota’s system maddening. Officials who oversee the system already face growing pressure from state lawmakers as well as a new lawsuit that threatens to upend the licensing process.

A group of teachers sued in April, complaining that the 11-member teaching board arbitrarily denied licenses to qualified teachers for years.

“Really, the bottom line is there’s diffuse responsibility and therefore a lack of accountability and a lack of transparency,” said Judy Randall, evaluation manager for the state’s Office of the Legislative Auditor.

The shortcomings

Some teachers have argued they’ve been sent on a never-ending path to get licensed in the past years, including some who have endured long waits or had to enroll for additional schooling, though they’ve had years of teaching experience in other states.

Legislators and administrators have mentioned this difficult licensure process is contributing to teacher shortages in Minnesota, especially as they have struggled to recruit teachers of color.

The report pegged a share of the difficulty to each of the three entities involved in teacher licensure: the Legislature, the Department of Education and the Board of Teaching.

The Legislature has changed teacher-licensure laws multiple times since 2011 but failed to clarify the state’s different types of licenses. The Department of Education’s application system is outdated, meaning applicants can only submit basic information.

The report expressly called on the Board of Teaching to clearly outline the shortfalls in a denied application from a candidate. Aside from the lawsuit, teaching officials have long been criticized for not clearly stating why applications were denied. It said the board’s licensure-appeal process for candidates likely illegal, calling it “not consistent with the law.”

“That’s the most important thing coming out of this audit, is that the various responsible agencies step up and take responsibility for cleaning up the mess that we’ve gotten into,” said Daniel Sellers, executive director of advocacy group MinnCAN, whose members have been vocal about the inequity in teacher licensing statewide.

The fixes

Larger solutions include clarifying the licensure statutes that use undefined or duplicated terms. It asks the Legislature to use new definitions and introduce new terms.

It also recommends scrapping the current licensure system for a tiered one that outlines classroom requirements in each tier.

In a fix for the jumbled responsibility lines, the report is pushing for one state entity that deals with all teacher-licensure activities.

“Ideally, the sooner, the better,” Randall said.


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