ST. PAUL -- It should soon be easier for Kirstin Rogers and educators like her to be licensed to teach in Minnesota.
Rogers was recognized as a top educator during her more than decade-long middle school teaching career in Utah, but when she tried to get a permanent license in Minnesota, she was told to go back to school.
“That was going to be too much for me,” said Rogers, who has a master’s degree in education.
Returning to college would complicate the Burnsville resident’s plans to start a family, so she left the classroom, started tutoring and began training to be a reading specialist. Eventually, Rogers hopes to return to teaching.
Expensive college courses constitute what is probably the most common hurdle out-of-state teaching candidates face in pursuing a Minnesota license, but it is not the only one. Candidates say state licensing requirements are inconsistent, the process is not transparent and credentials from other states are routinely rejected.
Those hurdles have not gone unnoticed at the Legislature. And this year, lawmakers knocked some of them down.
Advocates say qualified candidates need a clearer path to a Minnesota teaching license if the state is to address a growing shortage of teachers in some specialized areas. But the implementation of those legislative changes faces a long and complex road.
By the end of the year, the Minnesota Board of Teaching, which sets licensing standards, must draft new rules for credentialing candidates trained outside Minnesota.
“We are going to proceed with all haste,” said Erin Doan, executive director of the board, which also wants to clean up redundant and confusing licensing language. “We are not going to slow it down.”
Other changes will happen more quickly.
The recent legislation calls for the teaching board and the Minnesota Department of Education to reinstate a licensing-by-portfolio system, which allows experienced educators to be certified by demonstrating their skills through past work.
In addition, state officials must draft license reciprocity agreements with neighboring states this summer.
“Those are huge changes, and we feel they are an incredible success,” said Daniel Sellers, executive director of education reform advocate MinnCAN, or the Minnesota Campaign for Achievement Now.
Seller’s group lobbied hard for the licensing changes, arguing that they are key to attracting excellent educators and closing the state’s achievement gap between poor and minority students and their classmates.
Despite the legislative changes, Rogers and nearly two dozen other teachers denied full licenses sued the Board of Teaching in April in Ramsey County.
The plaintiffs claimed that for years, the board “arbitrarily denied licenses to well-qualified teachers who clearly met the statutory requirements.”
Their suit alleges that the board ignored legislative orders in 2011 to streamline the licensing process for qualified educators from other states and uses unclear licensing rules that are inconsistently enforced.
It also says state licensing officials have abandoned the licensing-by-portfolio system.
As a result, the suit claims, qualified teachers have been kept out of classrooms, where they could help struggling students, and the diversity of the state’s teaching force has been limited. Minnesota’s teaching force is about 94 percent white.
The plaintiffs decided not to abandon their lawsuit after the Legislature ordered changes to the licensing system.
“The fact of the matter is, laws have been passed before that the board has just ignored,” Sellers said. “That’s why the lawsuit still matters so much.”
Board of Teaching officials say the lawsuit should be thrown out. They want to handle teaching candidates’ complaints through an administrative appeals process, not the courts.
The officials have said that about 40 percent of the most recently issued new licenses went to candidates from out of state. Those licenses are often temporary, and candidates are required to complete testing or academic courses.
Doan said that with limited staff and resources, the Board of Teaching has worked hard to comply with changes in state law. She said the time-consuming portfolio licensing process was stopped in 2012 after an employee was reassigned.
Scrutiny of Minnesota’s teacher licensing system doesn’t stop with lawmakers and litigation from frustrated educators: The Minnesota Office of the State Legislative Auditor said in April that it would investigate how the Board of Teaching issues credentials.
The state government watchdog plans to examine the transparency and consistency of the system, how the board implements legislative orders and the board’s relationship with the state Department of Education.
Both sides of the licensing debate applauded the agency’s decision to step in. The legislative auditor often recommends ways to improve government systems to state lawmakers.
Doan said she hopes the legislative auditor can untangle some of the confusion about the responsibilities held by the Board of Teaching and by the Education Department’s teacher licensing department.
She said the board is often the scapegoat while both agencies play roles in the credentialing process.
The Board of Teaching sets the standards for earning an educator’s license, but the initial approval decisions are made by the Education Department. Candidates denied licenses can appeal those decisions to the teaching board.
“We are very glad to have the legislative auditor working here,” Doan said. “We’ve had a hard time telling our side of the story.”
Sellers also is hopeful the watchdog’s review will help sort out the confusion surrounding how Minnesota licenses teachers.
“I’m confident the Office of the Legislative Auditor will do a thorough job, and we will support their recommendations,” Sellers said.
The inquiry is expected to be completed next year.
The Pioneer Press is a media partner of Forum News Service.