Minnesota on the verge of teacher licensing overhaul
ST. PAUL — The years-long task of overhauling Minnesota's way of licensing teachers has entered the home stretch.
If lawmakers can resolve the differences in bills that have already cleared the House and Senate in a way that wins the approval of Gov. Mark Dayton, they can accomplish one of the biggest reforms to state education policy in recent history.
"I hope the governor will see this as part of his legacy," said Sen. Eric Pratt, R-Prior Lake, who sat on a school board for a dozen years before joining the Legislature.
Pratt partnered with Rep. Sondra Erickson, R-Princeton, a retired educator and former member of the Board of Teaching, to sponsor bills that received bipartisan support in both chambers. The legislation includes input from teachers, school leaders and state officials who have been pushing for years to fix a system many believe is confusing and unfair.
The proposed changes would consolidate standards and teacher licensing under a new Professional Educator Licensing Board. It would create a four-tiered system for licenses and streamline the process for credentialing teachers trained out of state or in unconventional ways.
Supporters hope the new system will help address the state's growing shortage of educators in key specialties like science, math and special educations. The shortages are most acute in rural Minnesota where school leaders also struggle to find licensed teachers for technical classes.
Sticking points for Democrats
The changes may have bipartisan support, but that doesn't mean there are not controversial provisions in the bills that need to be rectified before a compromise is sent to the governor.
The biggest sticking point for Democrats and Brenda Cassellius, Dayton's state education commissioner, is over the qualifications candidates need to qualify for different license tiers. They worry the standards in the lower tiers will lead to school officials hiring less qualified teachers.
"As we balance the current problem of teacher supply, we don't want to rush to decisions that down the road might lessen the quality of the teachers who are in front of our kids," Cassellius told lawmakers recently.
GOP says effort opens access
Republicans have rejected that argument. They say they trust school officials to hire the most qualified teachers they can find.
"If you have a teacher in the classroom that's not doing the job, you are going to hear about it from parents," Pratt said. "I trust our superintendents. I trust our school boards."
Pratt added that the lower tier licenses will help working professionals who want to share their technical skills with students. Under the proposals being considered, entry-level licenses wouldn't require a bachelor's degree in some cases and could be renewed indefinitely.
Focused on timing
Besides technical changes, lawmakers and state education officials are also trying to work out the timing for the changes to take effect. Lawmakers want the changes to happen as quickly as possible, but state officials have warned the timeline needs to allow the new system to be properly implemented.
"We want to make sure we are not pushing some of these things forward in a way that makes it tougher for schools or for teachers themselves," said Erin Doan, who currently leads the state Board of Teaching.
The changes should be in place by this time next year — if lawmakers are able to finish the bill and get it to the governor before the session ends May 22. Pratt was confident it would get done and expects the committee finalizing the bill to meet this week.
"This is something we've got to get done this session," Pratt said. "It's been hanging out there too long."