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Minnesota Legislature begins work to overhaul teacher licensing

ST. PAUL—After years of complaints, a lawsuit and a court finding the state Board of Teaching in contempt, Minnesota lawmakers appear to have a path to overhaul the state's way of licensing teachers.

A bill sponsored by Rep. Sondra Erickson, R-Princeton, and debated Tuesday in the House Education Innovation Policy Committee she chairs would create a new, four-tiered credentialing system under a Professional Educator Licensing and Standards Board.

"We are looking for accountability. We are looking for transparency, and we are looking for efficiency," Erickson said.

Minnesota now splits the responsibility for credentialing educators between the state Department of Education, which makes decisions on initial applications, and the Board of Teaching, which handles standards and appeals. The split system has led to confusion and what many applicants describe as inconsistent decision making.

Those problems have made licensing difficult for teachers from other states and teachers trained in alternative programs. Many school leaders believe it also has exacerbated the state's shortage of educators in key specialties such as math, science and special education.

"RIDICULOUS AND DUMBFOUNDING"

Lawmakers tried before to fix the licensing problems, but critics of the remedies said they were ineffective and called for a complete overhaul. Meanwhile, in 2015, a group of teachers filed a lawsuit against the board of teaching alleging it was unfairly denying licenses to teachers from out of state.

Part of the lawsuit sought to reinstate an alternative licensing process that allowed applicants to present a portfolio of their qualifications and work experience. In July, a judge held the Board of Teaching in contempt for problems with reinstating the portfolio licensing process.

Kristin Rogers, a plaintiff in the case, commended state lawmakers for moving ahead with the licensing system overhaul. Rogers taught in Utah before relocating to Minnesota, where she struggled to get a license despite having experience and training.

"It is ridiculous and dumbfounding (that) someone with my credentials had to sue to get a teaching license," Rogers said.

SWEEPING CHANGES

Minnesota's Legislative Auditor examined the licensing system last year and recommended sweeping changes. Erickson's bill and its tiered system follows many of those recommendations.

The bill received praise from education advocates. It also prompted some to raise concerns.

Democrats and some educators questioned whether the tiered licensing system would encourage cash-strapped school districts to hire less qualified teachers with fewer qualifications. Licenses in the lower tiers do not require the same training and credentials as those in the higher tiers, similar to the current system of special permissions districts use when they are unable to find a fully licensed candidate for a job.

Erickson said she wanted to give district leaders local control over hiring decisions and trusted they would put the most qualified teacher available in their classrooms.

Education advocates also raised questions over the makeup of the new licensing board, which would replace the existing Board of Teaching. The proposed new board would be made up of teachers and school administrators and one member of the public but would no longer have a member from the state's teacher colleges.

The legislation is expected to be discussed in several committees before possibly being included in the larger education omnibus bill.

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