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Teach for America denied group teaching licenses

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Teacher trainees in the Teach for America program could find it harder to get into a classroom this fall. 

The Minnesota Board of Teaching on Friday denied the group's request for a blanket approval of 45 temporary teaching licenses. Instead the board will require individual approval of each applicant for the certification.

The program has faced criticism recently in Minnesota, with questions from the state's teachers union on how Teach for America prepares its trainees. 

For the past four years, the Minnesota Board of Teaching granted Teach for America a batch of licenses for the trainees in its two-year program, which is hailed by its supporters as an alternative to getting a traditional teaching degree.

Teach for America participants may not have set out in their education or careers to become a teacher, but instead decided to go that route after college.

Teach for America readies trainees for the classroom with five weeks of student teaching in the summer, then with ongoing training once the trainee starts teaching in their own classroom.

After two years, a participant can apply for a full Minnesota teaching license. Some go on to get a masters degree in teaching.

The Minnesota Board of Teaching said denying blanket approval does not shut the door on Teach for America in Minnesota, but instead requires each trainee to apply individually for a temporary license, so the state can sign off on each one.

The process starts July 1 and takes four to six weeks.

Crystal Brakke, executive director of Teach for America Twin Cities, thought the board should have approved the licenses now and held off on changing the process until next year.

 "Approving this group of 43 teachers, given the time of and given the request has been approved in the past, and opened up a way for us to start working together earlier to change the process for this next year," Brakke said.

It's a change in process that puts school administrators like Bondo Nyembwe in a tough spot. Nyembwe is the principal at St. Paul City School, a charter in the Frogtown neighborhood of St. Paul. He has already hired three people from Teach for America. They're supposed to start work in August.

Now Nyembwe will need to work with the Minnesota Department of Education this summer to get his new employees licensed.

"I will go forward, and I want to hire those TFA teachers so I will work with MDE to get through that process," Nyembwe said.

Brian Sweeney of Charter School Partners, a Minneapolis non-profit that helps start charters, thinks the Board of Teaching's move was influenced by the state teachers union Education Minnesota, which opposes the placement of Teach for America trainees in classrooms.

"There was little about what the classroom needs today and a lot about union politics. I think we've seen a coup d'etat today by the unions on Minnesota education policy," Sweeney said.

The Minnesota Board of Teaching has several members who themselves are members of the teachers union.

Union head Tom Dooher said it makes sense that they would want the state to monitor who gets a teaching license.

"You had practitioners who understand what it's like to be in a classroom, how difficult it is, and they just said, 'We're not going to give a blanket waiver to some group,'" Dooher said.

The board's decision comes less than a month after Gov. Mark Dayton vetoed $1.5 million of state funding for the program, saying the organization had the means to fund itself.

Some saw it as Dayton doing a favor to union members who have argued Teach for America is putting unprepared trainees into some of the state's neediest classrooms.

Dooher, whose term as union president ends at the end of June, makes no apologies for pushing this issue.

"Obviously we are influencers and we are going to continue to exert our influence in a positive way for teacher quality and teacher learning," Dooher said.

At Teach for America, it is unsure exactly if the board's decision will make it harder for their current trainees to get temporary teaching licenses. Currently they are in training in schools in Tulsa, Okla., and will return to Minnesota for further training at the end of July.