ST. PAUL — Minnesota’s new way of licensing teachers is stumbling before it even gets started, frustrating supporters of the sweeping overhaul passed last year to fix a flawed system.
Education officials say without more time to put the right procedures in place, the new Professional Standards and Educator Licensing Board will struggle to issue teaching licenses when the law changes July 1.
“It opens the state of Minnesota up to some potentially serious liability issues,” said Rep. Carlos Mariani, DFL-St. Paul. “We want the system to work.”
Republican lawmakers on the House education policy voted down Mariani’s attempt Thursday, March 22, to give the board another year to put the new tiered system in place for credentialing educators.
State Rep. Sondra Erickson, R-Princeton, who chairs the committee and has led efforts to rewrite the licensing law, dismissed the idea the board needed more time. She urged its members to focus on complying with the new law rather than trying to make controversial rules.
“It is possible to accomplish this,” said Erickson.
School leaders across the state are anxious to get the new system in place. They hope streamlining licensing will bring new, more diverse talent to Minnesota classrooms and help close the state’s academic achievement gap.
But teachers also want to make sure the system works as intended.
“We need a smooth and effective licensing system we can depend on so we can focus on teaching,” said Denise Specht, president of Education Minnesota, the state teachers union.
How did we get here?
Last year, a bipartisan group of lawmakers worked to solve long-standing problems with the old teacher licensing system that many called inconsistent and unfair. Finding a bipartisan solution was tough, but lawmakers eventually found common ground and won the governor’s support.
The changes created the new standards and licensing board, which began meeting at the beginning of 2018. To help with the transition, the former Board of Teaching began meeting with stakeholders and working to draft rules for the new licensing system.
That work was upended when an administrative law judge, which oversees state agencies’ rule making, told the newly formed board it needed to start from scratch.
“The Legislature gave us six months to do a 12- to 18-month job,” said Jim Miklausich, a member of the new board and an administrator for Shakopee schools, who said they were blindsided by the order to start the time-consuming process over.
Erickson and others who support the existing timeline say the new board should be able to use much of the input gathered by its predecessor. They say efforts to close what some educators consider a loophole that allows people without traditional training to get upper tier licenses is what is slowing down the process.
“Just because they don’t like the law, doesn’t mean they can write rules that supersede it,” said Daniel Sellers, executive director of the nonprofit advocacy group EdAllies who has lobbied for licensing changes for years.
Miklausich said such debates are the reason why state agencies have a rule-making process that includes public input to make sure they don’t overstep their authority.
“We want to implement the law the way it was intended,” Miklausich said.
What was wrong with the old system?
Minnesota’s teaching licenses have long been considered the gold standard of the Midwest, but educators trained in other states or in alternative ways often struggled to meet the state’s requirements.
Lawmakers started working to address complaints about the system in 2011, but most of the incremental changes they made didn’t help.
A group of teachers eventually filed a lawsuit against the state alleging they were unfairly denied licenses and told to complete unnecessary and expensive coursework before they could get into a classroom. The state Legislative Auditor, a government watchdog, examined the system and agreed it was overly complicated, confusing and unfair.
Part of the problem was Minnesota had two agencies involved in licensing. The state Department of Education processed applications and made initial decisions while the Board of Teaching set standards and handled appeals.
The new law concentrates all those responsibilities under the Professional Standards and Educator Licensing Board and creates a tier licensing system that is largely based on applicants training, abilities and experience.