With federal threat looming, Minnesota proposes new plan for special education teachers

Classroom materials used for education are visible
Minnesota is taking steps to limit how long special education teachers can work without formal training.
Kerem Yücel | MPR News

This story comes to you from Sahan Journal, a nonprofit newsroom dedicated to providing authentic news reporting about Minnesota's new immigrants and refugees. MPR News is a partner with Sahan Journal and shares stories between SahanJournal.com and MPRNews.org.

Minnesota will limit the number of years a special education teacher can work without any formal training, according to a corrective-action plan submitted Monday to the federal government.

In mid-May, the federal Office of Special Education Programs gave Minnesota 60 days to develop a corrective-action plan to bring the state into compliance with federal law. If Minnesota did not address the discrepancy, $219 million in federal special education funding could have been at risk.

“We are confident the federal Office of Special Education Programs will accept our action plan and we look forward to working with our partners and state lawmakers to make the recommended changes in the 2024 session,” said Minnesota Department of Education spokesperson Kevin Burns.

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Senator Steve Cwodzinski (DFL–Eden Prairie), who chairs the Senate Education Policy Committee, said that he would work to advance the agency’s proposal as quickly as possible in the next legislative session.

“I’m going to really push hard to have this be a standalone bill,” he said. “It should have bipartisan support, so we’ll get this through right away.”

One in six Minnesota kids receives special education services, with needs ranging from autism to emotional or behavioral disorders. Black and American Indian kids make up a disproportionate share of students receiving special education services in Minnesota.

The changes proposed by the Minnesota Department of Education are narrowly tailored to focus on a three-year time limit for special educators with a Tier 1 license. A Tier 1 license is available to people who have a bachelor’s degree and a job offer from a school, but no formal teacher preparation. A Tier 2 license can be held by someone with another advanced subject-matter degree or someone enrolled in a formal training program; Tier 3 and 4 “professional licenses” go to teachers who have completed teacher preparation programs.  

Josh Crosson, the executive director of education-reform advocacy group EdAllies, praised the plan as “focused.” 

But some advocates criticized the plan as falling short.

“I think they’re really missing the mark,” said Laura Mogelson, the legislative liaison for the Minnesota Association of Colleges of Teacher Education. “Other states have had this same problem, and the changes they made were swift. They stopped allowing a Tier 1–type teacher to be in the role of special educator without enrollment in an alternative program.”

By contrast, Mogelson said, “All our state is saying is we just won’t do it for more than three years.”

The letter from the Office of Special Education Programs, she said, described a three-year limit to “personnel who are participating in an alternate route to special education teacher certification.” But Tier 1 teachers are not enrolled in an alternate preparation program, Mogelson said. They receive licenses on an emergency basis. She ultimately questioned whether federal officials will accept Minnesota’s fairly narrow fix.

Tier 1 licenses have been attractive to school districts struggling with an ongoing teacher shortage, particularly in special education positions. But the U.S. Department of Education warned Minnesota in May that special education teachers must be “appropriately and adequately prepared and trained.”

That warning should apply to all Tier 1 special education teachers, Mogelson said. 

Minnesota’s proposed fix would not affect school districts’ ability to hire special education teachers with a Tier 1 license, as long as they do not maintain that license for more than three years. That means they could either leave their position or enter a training program to get a different tier of license.

Some advocates for special education students previously told Sahan Journal that focusing on a three-year time limit would be too narrow.

Kyena Cornelius, a professor of special education at Minnesota State University, Mankato, told Sahan Journal that any Tier 1 licenses in special education would represent a violation of federal law.

To come into compliance, she said, the state “would need to make sure that they can provide some meaningful preparation or meaningful professional development to all Tier 1 teachers that are assigned to specialized classrooms.” Rather than focus on the number of years teachers can get by without specialized training, Cornelius emphasized that less prepared teachers may not be able to adequately serve some of the state’s highest-need students.

Minnesota’s corrective-action plan

A change to Minnesota’s teacher licensure system will require a change in state law. The corrective-action plan details the steps that the Minnesota Department of Education and Professional Educator Licensing and Standards Board will take to advocate for a change in state law during the next legislative session.

The Minnesota Department of Education also pledged to notify school districts employing special education teachers who have held a Tier 1 license for three years or more that they will be ineligible for their position next year. They can keep their position if they meet the requirements for a Tier 2 or higher license—that is, by starting a teacher preparation program. The agency said that 17 teachers statewide will be affected by this new requirement.

The agency also pointed to grant funding allocated in the 2023 legislative session to support the training and mentorship of special education teachers. The legislature allocated $30 million over two years to a competitive grant program to help educators obtain a Tier 3 special education license through a teacher preparation program. The funding will go toward tuition assistance and other support for participants, including mentorship, technology, and licensure test preparation, the corrective-action plan says. The corrective-action plan also points to a legislative allocation of $10 million for mentorship programs of Tier 1 special education teachers. 

But Mogelson said that these programs are inadequate to meet the training and mentorship needs.

“Those are competitive grant programs that all districts must apply for,” she said. “Therefore, the special education teacher pipeline program is not a comprehensive solution to get all teachers into compliance.”

Her organization had offered support to the state to develop alternative programs to train special education teachers, she said. But that process does not appear in the state’s plan.

“Research shows that if you’re prepared and supported you stay in the field longer, and districts retain you longer as a teacher,” she said. “Right now we’re really dealing with not just a shortage but massive attrition.”

Crosson, of EdAllies, said that while the state’s corrective-action plan addressed the immediate shortcomings the feds had identified, it left room for a broader conversation at the legislature about how to support teacher training and development.

“I think the legislature is missing an opportunity to invest in the ladders into Tier 3 and Tier 4,” he said. That’s especially important after the legislature placed additional limits on Tier 2 teachers in the most recent legislative session, he said. While only 17 teachers may be affected by the new time limits now, that number could grow in the future when fewer teachers qualify for Tier 2.

“We need to have a collective statewide conversation about what types of teachers we want in the classroom,” Crosson said. “How do we provide the necessary supports for our Tier 1 and Tier 2 teachers to make sure that they’re great educators for all of our kids, but especially for our kids with disabilities?”

Cwodzinski, the chair of the Senate Education Policy Committee, said Monday he hoped to hear from special education teachers before deciding on next steps for how to support them. He said this issue would be the focus of his committee’s first hearing next year.

“I’m going to make sure as many special ed teachers that are willing come testify at that hearing, because I really believe in trying to hear from people in the trenches before we take action,” he said.

The first step on the timeline—notifying the school districts with affected teachers—will go into effect two weeks after the Office of Special Education Programs accepts the plan.

But it’s not immediately clear when the Office of Special Education Programs will make a decision on Minnesota’s proposed corrective-action plan. A spokesperson for the U.S. Department of Education said Tuesday that the department would review Minnesota’s plan and provide feedback as soon as possible. The spokesperson said the Department of Education will not formally close Minnesota’s noncompliance until the plan has been both approved and fully implemented.

This story has been updated with comments from the U.S. Department of Education.