Mixed feelings about teacher licensure reform

Staff Writer
Since 2013, I have primarily covered the Anoka-Hennepin and Spring Lake Park school districts as well as the city of Spring Lake Park for ABC Newspapers.

Local school districts and teachers unions agree that reform around teacher licensing is needed.

Audience members follow along as the House Education Innovation Policy Committee receives an overview of House File 140. Sponsored by Rep. Sondra Erickson, R-Princeton, the bill would restructure the state’s teacher licensure system. Photo by Paul Battaglia, courtesy of Minnesota House of Representatives
Audience members follow along as the House Education Innovation Policy Committee receives an overview of House File 140. Sponsored by Rep. Sondra Erickson, R-Princeton, the bill would restructure the state’s teacher licensure system. Photo by Paul Battaglia, courtesy of Minnesota House of Representatives

But what form that reform will take remains contentious.

Gov. Mark Dayton May 18 vetoed a bill that would restructure the teacher licensing system currently in place. But many elements of the bill were included in the broader E-12 education finance bill sent to the governor’s office May 26. Dayton signed the bill four days later, but only to avoid a government shutdown like the one in 2011, he said in a letter to legislators.

Dayton line-item vetoed appropriations for the House and Senate, which means they will soon lack funding to compensate employees and make payments on their buildings.

“Your job has not been satisfactorily completed, so I am calling on you to finish your work,” Dayton said.

He said he will only allow a special session if legislators agree to remove five provisions from various budget bills, including the teacher licensure provision in E-12 education legislation.

“The integrity of Minnesota’s professional teaching standards is of paramount importance to all of our state’s licensed teachers and to ensuring the quality of teachers, educating all of our children,” Dayton wrote.

Republican leaders of the House and Senate, Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, and Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, moved to file a lawsuit against the Democratic governor in Ramsey County District Court June 13.

The original bill, sponsored by Rep. Sondra Erickson, R-Princeton, came after more than a year of work by a bipartisan task force.

A new Professional Educator Licensing and Standards Board was proposed to pick up licensing tasks now shared by the Minnesota Board of Teaching and Department of Education.

The Professional Educator Licensing and Standards Board would use a new four-tiered system to license teachers, which would be far more transparent than the current system, according to Ryan Stromberg, director of human resources and organizational development for Spring Lake Park Schools.

Rep. Sondra Erickson, R-Princeton, makes final comments during the May 16 floor debate on legislation that would overhaul the teacher licensure system. Photo by Paul Battaglia, courtesy of Minnesota House of Representatives
Rep. Sondra Erickson, R-Princeton, makes final comments during the May 16 floor debate on legislation that would overhaul the teacher licensure system. Photo by Paul Battaglia, courtesy of Minnesota House of Representatives

Legislators who drafted House File 140 hoped the bill would enable districts to more easily fill vacancies in subject areas experiencing a teacher shortage, like advanced math and science. Authors also strove to simplify the process for teachers coming from other states who want to obtain their license here.

It is well documented that Minnesota is facing a teacher shortage, as is the United States more broadly.

According to the this year’s Minnesota Department of Education Teacher Supply and Demand report, 60,090 teachers were working in public school districts across the state during the 2015-2016 school year. Several thousand teachers were working outside of their licensure area after being granted variances or waivers to do so. Another 861 individuals were allowed to teach as non-licensed community experts.

Spring Lake Park Schools employs approximately 15 non-licensed community experts, primarily international teachers who come to the United States to teach at Woodcrest Spanish Immersion Elementary School, according to Stromberg.

He would like to see those teachers recognized as such. They are qualified teachers in their home countries, and here they remain non-licensed community experts indefinitely in most cases, which means they are unable to join the teachers union and may not receive the professional respect that they deserve, he said.

“I’d put my two little boys in their classroom in a heartbeat,” Stromberg said.

But the state teachers union, Education Minnesota, maintains that the legislation would have unintended consequences when classrooms are led by unqualified individuals who lack appropriate teacher training.

“We are definitely opposed to lowering standards,” Anoka Hennepin Education Minnesota President LeMoyne Corgard said. “We don’t see how lowering the standard is going to fix anything.”

In most cases, teachers are leaving the profession not because they have difficulty obtaining a license, but because of numerous other factors, including being overworked, under paid, unable to collaborate, overwhelmed by districts’ data focus and more, according to a report on teacher recruitment and retention released by Education Minnesota’s Educator Policy Innovation Center last year.

However, Corgard agrees that the Department of Education needs to take a look at streamlining the licensure process for out-of-state teachers.

“That is something that should continue to be visited,” he said.

Steve Kerr, executive director of community and governmental relations for the Anoka-Hennepin School District, said the bill addresses some issues, but admitted “it’s not a perfect bill.”

Kerr said he did believe the legislation would help districts around the state fill specialist positions that they are currently struggling to fill.

Licensing is only one of the many checks and balances in place to ensure teacher quality, Stromberg said, calling out teacher evaluations as one example.

Dayton initially said he vetoed the bill because requisite funding, approximately $3.4 million, was not attached.

Additionally, Dayton said it is “troubling” that pathways to a third-tier unlimited professional licensure exist for individuals who have not received teacher training.

“We must always balance the very real urgency of addressing our significant teacher shortages with a commitment to maintaining the high professional standards for which Minnesota is known,” Dayton wrote.

After incremental changes, Dayton approved the E-12 education finance bill, which maintains the creation of a governance board and four-tier licensure structure.

If a special session is not called, licensing reform will take effect in 2018.

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