Twenty teachers from other states have sued the Minnesota Board of Teaching out of frustration at the process for becoming certified to work in Minnesota public schools.
The lawsuit, filed in Ramsey County District Court, alleges the board is illegally denying full licensure to qualified teachers. The teachers bringing the suit include a Harvard grad, one who is bilingual and others with more than 30 years of experience. They say education officials are not being transparent, are making them jump through unnecessary hoops and possibly blocking a solution to the achievement gap problem.
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The Minnesota Board of Teaching, which is responsible for creating and implementing licensure policies, plans to dispute the claims at a June 25 hearing. Board officials say the number of out-of-state teachers granted Minnesota licenses has doubled over the past five years and made up 39 percent of all teacher licenses in 2014.
A Minnesota Department of Education report released in January found the percentage of districts indicating that it's "impossible or very difficult" to find qualified teachers has nearly doubled since 2012.
Michelle Hughes was one of four original plaintiffs who filed the lawsuit in April. Sixteen more joined a month later. With 12 years' experience as a special education teacher in California public schools, she passed the Minnesota basic skills tests that all teachers must take to get a license.
But for the past two years, she hasn't been able to get an elementary education license that would allow her to move from Berkeley and start teaching in her home state, where she would be closer to family and enjoy a lower cost of living.
She doesn't know why she remains unqualified to teach in Minnesota, even after going back and forth with the board to explain and submit transcripts, letters of recommendation, a resume and credentials.
"Special education teachers are hard to come by, especially ones with 12 years of experience and all the education that I have," Hughes said. "Most other places would be jumping for me to move there."
The day after the lawsuit was filed, the board gave her a two-month elementary education license, she said. That's not enough time to start a Minnesota teaching job and finish all the remaining requirements that Hughes says she's already demonstrated through experience.
"It's just really frustrating and really infuriating," Hughes said.
Board officials acknowledged they grant licensure on a case-by-case basis, but said the process is clear and maintains Minnesota's standing as a place where other states come to recruit.
According to the Minnesota Department of Education, there are three main statutory requirements to obtain a five-year license, which most teachers consider full licensure. Candidates can be granted temporary one- to three-year licenses so they can start teaching while finishing the required tests and coursework.
Minnesota law says that teachers must pass tests in reading, writing and math; how to teach those subjects, as well as specific content knowledge. All teachers also must show they completed coursework or training in advanced reading, a standard that has been in place for five years under a bipartisan agreement that was intended to close the achievement gap.
Another state requirement is multicultural education focused on Minnesota's American Indian population in the form of coursework or professional development training.
Erin Doan, executive director for the Minnesota Board of Teaching, said many out-of-state candidates feel the rigorous testing and cultural training are "extras, tossed in, that they feel are unnecessary."
"Paying attention to those targeted strategies for reducing that gap is something that Minnesota has a vested interested in," she said. "It's not just frivolous. It's a very important piece of instruction."
But some school administrators in rural Minnesota say the out-of-state licensure process contributes to a teacher shortage problem at a time when teachers are leaving the field.
• September 2014: Rural Minnesota districts finding it tougher to lure new teachers
John Dotson, superintendent of the Bird Island-Olivia-Lake Lillian District in southwest Minnesota, testified about the issue at the State Capitol this year.
Dotson said only one person applied for a high school chemistry vacancy at his high school last year. The applicant was attractive because he had 10 years of teaching experience from North Dakota and a master's degree in science.
But the teacher had to take and pass 10 different content area tests within a two-year period before getting a full license that would allow him to work for Dotson permanently.
"Why doesn't Minnesota have some reciprocity with some surrounding states and universities?" he said. "It's contributing to the crisis of not having enough teachers to fill positions."
The lawsuit argues a law passed in 2002 that helped give nearly 400 teachers licensure through a portfolio process between 2004 and 2013 should not have been discontinued. The portfolio process allowed candidates to show evidence of teaching experience as opposed to completing traditional teacher preparation courses.
The teachers' attorney, Rhyddid Watkins, said the program was a response to the No Child Left Behind Act to help attract a diverse pool of teacher candidates to schools. He said it was financially self-sustaining and successful.
"For reasons we've been unable to determine, they went ahead and discontinued the process," Watkins said.
Education officials say they see the program as a largely unfunded mandate, and that the $300 to $500 application fees weren't enough to pay all staff costs and the technical support to run it.
Richard Wassen, director of educator licensing for the Minnesota Department of Education, said the licensure via portfolio program wasn't designed for teachers with formal education training. It was motivated by the Perpich Center for Arts Education to license its experienced teachers and emphasize the importance of arts education.
The number of teachers licensed under the program over the years was a small percentage of the total 8,000 licenses issued every year, Wassen said.
"Almost every out-of-state teacher that we've ever dealt with who truly has equivalent credentials, we find some way to get them limited or provisional license to teach," he said.
But many teachers struggle to determine what's "essentially equivalent" when presenting the board with teaching experience.
"Almost all the teachers that we are working with pass those tests on the first try," said Daniel Sellers, executive director for Minnesota Campaign for Achievement Now, a nonprofit not involved in the lawsuit that has been lobbying for a more streamlined process. "It's very clear based on these examinations that they are more than qualified to get into the classroom."
The 2015 Minnesota legislative session ended with a budget bill that includes changes to out-of-state teacher licensing rules. The Board of Teaching must adopt new rules by January 2016 and streamline parts of the process immediately. Under the new law, the board is required to grant two-year provisional licenses in areas experiencing a shortage.
Watkins said Monday that amendments to the law don't change the nature of the lawsuit.
"The facts had already existed," he said, adding: "We will be pressing forward."
Michelle Hughes has an interview in Minnesota soon. The current licensure process is adding to her anxiety.
"It's hard on my family. I'm 35 years old, I'm not in my early 20s," the Duluth native said. "I want to move somewhere, be in a community where I have friends and family. I want to put down roots. I want my kid to grow up there. This isn't a decision that I'm taking on lightly."