Thursday morning, Gov. Mark Dayton vetoed a long-awaited bill to reform the state’s broken teacher licensing system. The bill made its way to his desk Tuesday, after passing the House and Senate that same day.
The bill encompassed the key recommendations offered by state auditors, who conducted an evaluation and reported their findings to legislators last spring in an effort to make the system more streamlined and transparent for applicants. That list of reforms includes a new governance structure — specifically, the creation of a Professional Educator Licensing and Standards Board that would take over duties currently shared between the state Department of Education and the state Board of Teaching — and the establishment of a four-tiered system. Qualifications for each level of licensure are specified, along with any limitation on how many renewals are allowed.
A bipartisan legislative working group that met over the summer decided on using this framework. Given the state’s growing teacher shortage in hard-to-fill areas like special education, math, and the trades — combined with a need to diversity the teacher workforce — the overhaul has largely been characterized by a sense of urgency, that this is one effort that simply can’t be left unfinished this session.
As partisan tensions amped up during session, however, hammering out the details of the bill became contentious. Some Democrats, along with the state teachers union, Education Minnesota, have raised concerns that the lower licensure tiers make it too easy for people without professional training to get a teaching license. And state Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius pushed back on a lack of guaranteed funding needed to implement the new licensing system.
In his veto letter, Dayton cited both of these concerns as two of the main reasons he’s insisting that further negotiations take place between legislators and the education commissioner and his staff. “It is my hope that they will do so quickly, and that I can sign the revised teacher licensing bill in this session,” he stated in a press release.
In a press conference held Thursday afternoon, the bill’s chief authors, Rep. Sondra Erickson and Sen. Eric Pratt, countered these critiques, noting the funding would follow in a separate Education Finance Omnibus bill — since Dayton ordered legislators not to mix policy and budget items — and that the lowest tier in the system would actually include stricter standards than are currently set for nonlicensed “community experts.”
Caught in limbo
One question is what happens to those who are currently trying to navigate the state’s teacher licensure system? Even if the governor and legislators are able to reach a compromise, the new tiered system likely won’t go into effect until early 2018.
That means changes won’t roll out fast enough for some teachers. That includes teachers who are looking to transfer out-of-state credentials to secure an equivalent Minnesota teaching license but have found themselves stuck in licensure limbo — turned down by the Board of Teaching without a clear explanation of why their application was rejected or how to proceed.
Kimberly Baker, a special education teacher in Farmington who is teaching on a temporary license, could be considered Exhibit A on this front.
Baker’s attempt to secure licensure in Minnesota that reflects her coursework and teaching experience, which she acquired in Iowa, has drawn out into a years-long saga. Despite having a background in special education — along with the support of an administrative law judge who recently issued a recommendation in her favor — Baker hasn’t been able to convince the Board of Teaching that she’s qualified to teach in this high-needs area. Just last Friday the board rejected the administrative law judge’s nonbinding recommendation.
“It did really hurt my feelings at first because I wear my heart on my sleeve, and it is something I’m extremely passionate about. I’ve always been passionate about helping the kids that are struggling, that need that extra help,” Baker said in an interview on Monday. “Honestly, the way that I look at it is that I did the education. I was involved. I had a high GPA. I was the president of the Education Honor Society. So when I look at all that stuff, it’s not me.”
‘I’ve walked that path’
Baker, 37, doesn’t come from a long line of educators. But it was a family member who inspired her to go into special education. When she was 15 years old, her nephew was born with cerebral palsy, a condition that left him severely handicapped both physically and cognitively. “Just through my experience with that and seeing … the struggle to get services for him really gave me a yearning to work with children on the special education side,” she said.
In 2001, she graduated with a teaching degree from the University of Northern Iowa with a double major in elementary education and early childhood education. With the intent to become a special education teacher, Baker was enrolled in a unified program that combined special education training with general education training.
After completing two student teaching experiences in Iowa, she received her teaching license and began working as a special education teacher at Gilbert Elementary School. Nearly two years in, and nearly 9 months pregnant, she moved to Arizona with her husband, who’d taken a new engineering job. Baker obtained an Arizona teaching license, but once their son was born, her priorities shifted.
“Immediately, I knew that something wasn’t right. And it took us kind of a long time to figure that out. But he has severe autism. So I stayed home with him just to oversee his services, to work with him, because who better than a special education teacher to work with your own child?”
She eventually had two more children, both of which have special needs as well. Baker explained that daughter has autism and is severely bipolar, a condition that usually isn’t detected so early on. And her youngest child has ADHD — a condition that’s not as difficult to manage, Baker says with a smile, reflecting on extent of her child-care duties at home.
Seeking quality early childhood services, they moved back to Iowa when their oldest was 3 years old. Then they moved to Minnesota in 2013, in pursuit of special education services provided in Lakeville public schools.
At that point, after nearly a decade of staying home to help raise her children, Baker decided to get back into teaching. She began working as a nonlicensed tutor at the elementary school her son was attending, while applying to get her teaching credentials transferred from Iowa to Minnesota.
She says the Board of Teaching reviewed and approved her elementary education and early childhood education licenses with relative ease. But the Board of Teaching rejected her Early Childhood Special Education training, claiming it didn’t align well enough with the Minnesota equivalent. It’s an interpretation of state law and Baker’s credentials that her attorney — an associate of the Faegre Baker Daniels law firm, which has been taking these sorts of out-of-state teacher denial cases, pro bono, for the past five years or so — and Administrative Law Judge Jim Mortenson have both contested. In his report, Mortenson concluded that “the licensure areas, while not the same, are ‘similar’ as required by applicable law.”
Eventually, Baker found her way to the Farmington Public Schools district, where she moved around in a number of different positions, before settling into her current role as the lead teacher for a Developmentally and Cognitively Delayed (DCD) classroom at Riverview Elementary School. It’s a level three self-contained program, which means students get all of their academic instruction from Baker and the two paraprofessionals in her classroom. She was able to take this position with a three-year, nonrenewable license because she’s started a master’s program at St. Mary’s University to demonstrate she was taking steps toward licensure that the board could agree upon.
She’d always figured she’d eventually pursue a master’s degree, she says. But the timing is far from ideal. While she’s able to do her coursework online, she’s still having to get up early and stay up late to fit it in between caring for her children and sustaining her commitments as an active parent advocate.
Admittedly, Baker says she reached a point where she nearly gave up because “it gets to a point where you’re constantly told ‘No.’ But she’s persisting. “I really feel that I bring something to the table, that I can really help other people because I know what they’re going through,” said Baker, tearing up. “I really do. I’ve walked that path with my kids and so many different disabilities that I’ve worked with. And, honestly, there’s nothing more powerful than a parent advocate.”
Planning to challenge decision
At this point, Baker’s attorney, Bethany Gullman, says they plan to challenge the board’s decision by bringing the case to the Minnesota Court of Appeals. “We think it will be persuasive to put an administrative law judge’s decision in front of them,” she said. “Hopefully they’ll see it a different way.”
That process can move along slowly, taking anywhere from six to eight months, Gullman explained. But Baker views her case as a glitch in the system that’s driving away qualified, talented special education teachers with out-of-state licenses in a state that desperately needs to fill these specialized positions in schools. She knows a number of people who fit this category, but she often hears them say it’s not worth it to pursue jobs in special education.
“It’s scary because those are the kids that need [them] most,” Baker said. “Those are the kids that are the most behind.”
Given the pending teacher licensure reforms, Baker’s own situation could eventually be impacted in a couple of significant ways. First, the governance overhaul would put new leadership in place. New board members would bring a fresh perspective when interpreting state statute with regards to teacher licensure.
Secondly, whoever is appointed to serve on the new board will have a new, clearly laid out tiered licensure system to reference when reviewing applications and, when necessary, spelling out their rationale for denying applicants. This will also help applicants better understand what credentials they need to submit or attain for each level of licensure. Looking at the proposed tiers, Baker would likely qualify for a tier 2 or tier 3 license at this point. As things currently stand, however, she’s still left with a general sense of ambiguity as to what courses she needs to take for her master’s degree and why.
“They won’t tell me what extra classes I need to take, considering that my special education license that I have for early childhood covers more grade levels than theirs,” she said. “So I’m left confused as to what other things I need.”
Given the time it will take to implement a new teacher licensure system, if it survives session, the reality for Baker and those in similar situations won’t change overnight. Daniel Sellers, head of the Minnesota-based education reform group EdAllies who’s been pushing for many of the new licensure reforms, says relief won’t come soon enough.
“Unfortunately, right now, even if the bill passes we’re in the same situation we’ve always been,” he said, commenting on the implementation period. “My advice to everyone has been: Apply for the license you want and fight like hell to get it.”