by Christopher Magan in the Pioneer Press, Duluth News Tribune, West Central Tribune on Wednesday, May 18, 2016
A budget gap at the Minnesota Board of Teaching is slowing efforts to improve the state’s educator licensing system, seen as key to help remedy a statewide teacher shortage.
Erin Doan, the board’s executive director, said a $16,000 budget gap has staff members voluntarily taking a day without pay each week and board members holding their June meeting online.
The financial problems will delay work begun last year to streamline the licensing system for educators who were trained out-of-state or in alternative ways. The Legislature originally set an ambitious January deadline for those updates, but they are now unlikely to be submitted to Gov. Mark Dayton for approval before summer.
“It’s just going to slow everything down because there are fewer people here on a daily basis to move the work forward,” Doan said.
Any further delay would be unfortunate, said Daniel Sellers, executive director of MinnCAN, who has pushed for licensing reforms. Many education advocates say fixing the licensing system is important for reducing the state’s teacher shortage and its longstanding academic achievement gap.
“I would hope they would find a way,” Sellers said.
Doan said rising expenses outside the board’s direct control led to it being unable to operate within a $718,000 budget. More funding for the board is in the Senate’s supplemental budget, but its chances of passing are unclear.
The way Minnesota licenses teachers has been scrutinized, and increasingly criticized, for years. A recent examination by the state Legislative Auditor recommended a complete overhaul.
FIXING THE SYSTEM
Doan worries that the furloughs also will hamper the work of a teacher licensing task force that is expected to begin meeting in June. The group of lawmakers and educators will recommend the best way to fix the state’s educator credentialing system.
The Board of Teaching is now responsible for setting license standards while the state Department of Education makes initial decisions on license applications. The board also handles appeals of licensing decisions and educator disciplinary cases.
“It is so important that we have the opportunity to share the big picture regarding the many operational constraints we experience with lawmakers,” Doan said. “It is time to think differently about the state governance structures that support one of our most valuable professions.”
A MinnCAN-backed lawsuit from a group of out-of-state teachers played a key role in calls for a licensing overhaul. Those educators say the existing system is convoluted and unfair.
MinnCAN’s Sellers has acknowledged the licensing system faces ongoing funding challenges and has lobbied for the agency to receive a funding increase. But he says money should not stand in the way of much-needed reforms.
“There is nothing in the law anywhere that would allow the board to ignore the law or not fulfill their duties because of funding,” he said.
A growing number of Minnesota school districts, particularly those in rural areas, struggle to find qualified teachers in key specialties such as science or special education. State leaders also want to diversify Minnesota’s teaching force, which is roughly 96 percent white at the same time as student enrollment has become more ethnically diverse.
MORE MONEY NOT ENOUGH
This isn’t the first time the board of teaching has faced a funding shortfall. There was a similar gap in 2013, and a 2015 budget cut made things worse, Doan says.
Last year, the Legislature gave the board a $100,000-a-year increase in the current two-year budget. Doan says the increase helped address the agency’s chronic funding issues, but they had hoped for a little more because expenses were anticipated to rise.
Much of the budget goes to salary and benefits for six staff members, Doan said. But legal expenses, a rent increase from the Department of Education, where the board is located, and the unexpected cost of state-negotiated contracts threatened to put the agency into a deficit this year.
The Senate’s supplemental budget proposal includes $250,000 a year more for the board. The House budget has no funding increase.
Republicans and Democrats remain far apart in their supplemental budget bills, a key legislative item they hope to settle before the session concludes Monday. Without agreement, state spending will remain at levels set last year.
Denise Specht, president of the state teachers union Education Minnesota, hopes lawmakers will agree to close the board’s funding gap.
“Unlike most problems in education, this one has an easy fix,” Specht said. “The Legislature just needs to pay for the work it requires of the board.”