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Alternative teacher-licensure bill sits in Senate as compromise is sought

How did a measure that seemed to have broad, bipartisan support go from the fast track to legislative limbo?

For the first month of its life, Senate File 40, Minnesota’s much-discussed alternative teacher licensure bill, moved at legislative light speed. During the opening days of the session, it rocketed from one Senate committee to another without major debate.

Two weeks in, the Senate sent it on to the state House of Representatives, where it passed in a mere three days. But then, on Feb. 10, its main sponsor, Senate President Pro Tem Gen Olson, R-Minnetrista, moved that it be “laid on the table” indefinitely.  

How did a measure that seemed to have broad, bipartisan support go from the fast track to legislative limbo? The short answer seems to be that the governor flinched, deciding that alternative teacher certification should look a little less alternative.

In the two weeks since the bill landed back in the Senate — theoretically its last stop before the governor’s desk — Mark Dayton and Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius have written three letters to Olson asking for changes. The senator could not be reached for comment yesterday, but she has said publicly that Dayton’s amendments would gut the measure.

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Mainstream college/university prep required
Right now, with a few exceptions, in order to obtain a license to work in Minnesota, teachers must be graduates of teacher-preparation programs at mainstream colleges and universities. Also with few exceptions, this means Minnesota teachers-to-be do not receive training in many of the newest strategies for teaching in urban settings.

For several years, education reformers have sought to change this, noting that many of the schools nationwide doing the best job closing the racial and economic achievement gap are staffed by instructors who were trained in effective, intensive strategies by groups like Teach for America and The New Teacher Project.

Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius
MinnPost/James Nord
Commissioner Brenda Cassellius

Most Minnesota TFA teachers work in urban charter schools, although a few have special permission to work in struggling schools in Minneapolis and Brooklyn Center. And the St. Paul Federation of Teachers has received state permission to pilot its own alternative certification program, aimed at mid-career minorities.

During last year’s legislative session, Rep. Carlos Mariani, DFL-St. Paul, authored an alternative licensure bill, but it died in large part because of opposition from the state’s largest teachers union, Education Minnesota. The state’s lack of alternate certification was one reason why Minnesota last year lost the competition for federal Race to the Top stimulus funding.

Early progress not a big surprise
With the governor’s race decided, the GOP in charge of both houses and a year’s worth of positive headlines about TFA alums and other nontraditional teachers, SF 40’s sprint out of the gate in January wasn’t a huge surprise.

Soon after the bill’s return to the Senate, however, Dayton wrote to Olson asking that she make two significant changes to the measure. The first, championed by Education Minnesota, would allow candidates to be certified only to teach subjects in which they majored in college. The second would require nonprofits engaged in alternative teacher training to “link” with a traditional teacher preparation program at a college or university.

But the whole point of the measure was to create an alternative to the traditional programs, Olson countered. And limiting the alternatively certified teachers to their college major would rule out lots of highly educated career changers.

Olson didn’t want the bill vetoed, but she did want it to create something meaningful, she told the Associated Press. And so the file has languished, waiting for her to decide to send it back to conference committee for modification, send it to Dayton as is or let it die and start over.

Another letter seeking compromise
On Monday, Cassellius sent a third letter [PDF] proposing a compromise. Under the language she proposed, alternatively prepared teachers would have to pass state tests in the subject matters in which they are seeking a license and would have to show progress over their initial “baseline” as they work toward full licensure.

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Additionally, the nonprofits providing the training would have to have “a link to higher education” for at least three years until they have demonstrated their effectiveness. Once a program has proven itself it can “de-link” the partnership and change it to a “consulting relationship.” Programs proven in other states may request a waiver from the linking requirement.

The commissioner did not spell out what either the link or the consulting relationship would look like, only her belief that involving traditional higher-ed programs is the best way to guarantee the programs’ integrity. Olson’s version would leave it to the state Board of Teaching to evaluate the programs that want to provide alternative training.

And of course, this is the first time the GOP-controlled statehouse and the DFL governor have squared off on broadly backed legislation neither can afford to be accused of killing.

As of yesterday, the “laid to table” bill was still sitting — literally, according to Education Committee staff — on the front desk of the Senate. How much longer it will sit there, only Olson knows.