Last week, I attended a joint legislative committee hearing on the Minnesota Board of Teaching’s progress to implement licensure changes the Legislature passed in June 2015. As it turns out, the hearing (which you can watch here) and the media coverage that followed (Education Week, Minnesota Public Radio, Star Tribune, Pioneer Press and Watchdog all published stories), raised more questions than answers about the BoT’s progress and what it all means for Minnesota kids and schools. Below, I attempt to answer what I believe are the most significant and lingering questions.
But first, some background: For years, experienced educators have been deterred by Minnesota’s inconsistent, labyrinthine licensure process for out-of-state teachers, making it impossible in many cases for Minnesota schools to recruit or retain them. In response to this problem, growing teacher shortages across the state and a staggeringly wide diversity gap between Minnesota’s teachers and students (4 percent of our teachers are people of color, compared to 30 percent of our students), MinnCAN and a broad coalition of partners advocated at the Capitol to streamline the licensure process for qualified out-of-state teachers.
The Legislature heard our concerns and passed important policy solutions. Perhaps most significantly, the Legislature stipulated that the BoT must adopt and publish new rules on licensure for out-of-state and alternatively certified teacher applicants. The BoT was directed to “establish criteria and streamlined procedures by January 1, 2016, to recognize the experience and professional credentials of [applicants prepared in another state].”
1. So, whose fault is this licensure mess, anyways?
It seems like there is some confusion about which aspects of educator licensing the BoT is responsible for and which fall under the Minnesota Department of Education. Why? Because while the BoT sets the rules for licensure, teachers apply through the MDE (which is responsible for reviewing applications and making determinations about which licenses, if any, candidates qualify for). If a candidate is denied a license, they can appeal the decision to the BoT.
Bottom line: This licensure mess is a direct result of the absence of clarity from the BoT, which is responsible for writing rules and establishing “criteria and streamlined procedures” so that MDE licensing officials have clear instructions on how to treat out-of-state applications. Without clear rules or criteria, MDE ends up responding to candidates inconsistently or—in some cases—not at all.
2. Is streamlining out-of-state licensure a partisan issue?
Following the hearing, the Star Tribune reported that, “Republican state House members criticized the Minnesota Board of Teaching on Thursday, saying that the board is delaying the implementation of new rules that would make it easier for out-of-state teachers to work in the state.” So, are Republicans and Democrats divided on this?
Bottom line: No. The 2015 law directing the BoT to act had bipartisan support in both chambers and bill authors from both sides of the aisle. What’s more, at last week’s hearing, both Republican and DFL legislators very publicly expressed confusion and frustration with the BoT’s inaction.
3. Wasn’t legislation on this same topic passed in 2011? After four years and two new laws, why hasn’t the BoT implemented “criteria and streamlined procedures” for out-of-state candidates?
At last week’s hearing, BoT Executive Director Erin Doan testified that, “I think the problem is, no one has defined what a streamlined process is.” And yet, both the 2011 and 2015 laws are abundantly clear: The power to define this process, and establish aligned procedures, is the responsibility of the BoT. The suggestion that BoT members have not acted for the past four years because they are not able to without more specific instructions from the Legislature is both disheartening and simply untrue.
What’s more, we do know what “streamlined procedures” look like. I was on a BoT-convened working group that put together a rubric, which would do exactly what the law directs the BoT to do. In fact, the BoT once indicated at a public meeting that it would adopt the rubric and instruct the MDE to apply it in making licensure determinations for out-of-state candidates. But that never happened. The rubric unceremoniously disappeared, never to be spoken of again.
Bottom line: Only the BoT can answer this one. It is clearly the BoT’s job to draft rules and criteria for licensure, and it was once on track to do just that. What isn’t clear is why this process stalled, why the BoT continues to either disregard, ignore or circumvent the legislative directions it’s been given, and why, in some cases where the BoT has taken action, it’s actually assumed the role of lawmaker by creating requirements and making changes, like discontinuing licensure via portfolio, which may very well be illegal.
4. What now?
The BoT is drafting the rules it was directed to draft in 2011 and again in 2015, but is clearly not on track to complete it by the Jan. 1 deadline. Whether these rules will end up following the letter of law, incorporating stakeholder feedback or helping the teachers, students and schools the Legislature intended to help, remains to be seen. Meanwhile, the Office of the Legislative Auditor is conducting an audit of the BoT and teacher licensure more broadly, with the results and policy recommendations expected to come out in early 2016.
Bottom line: As thrilled as we were to see the Legislature pass meaningful policy changes to teacher licensure in 2011 and again 2015, it becomes clearer with each passing day that these changes are only meaningful if implemented. Along with experienced out-of-state teachers who want to work in Minnesota and local school leaders who want and need to hire them, we will be closely watching the BoT’s actions. We hope you will, too.