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Teaching Board denies Teach for America group variance, wants individual evaluations

Despite the pleas of numerous education advocates,  the board voted to end a licensing arrangement that made it easier for Twin Cities schools to hire TFA teachers.

The Minnesota Board of Teaching meeting was packed for Friday's decision about Teach for America's licensure variance.
MinnPost photo by Beth Hawkins

Despite the pleas of numerous education advocates, school leaders, a state senator and even a fired-up grandmother, the Minnesota Board of Teaching voted 9-2 Friday to end a licensing arrangement that has made it easier for Twin Cities schools to hire Teach for America (TFA) corps members.

Unsatisfied that the group’s recruits meet its standards despite evidence presented by TFA and its supporters, the board decided it would prefer to screen each individual potential teacher, a process that will take six to eight weeks.

The move throws into question the ability of the group’s current 43 members to take jobs many already have been offered — and may affect schools’ ability to find replacements before the start of the school year. Many of the schools in question return from summer break the first week of August.

“We will help schools go through he individual licensing process,” Crystal Brakke, executive director of TFA-Twin Cities said after the vote. “We are already talking to the Minnesota Department of Education (MDE) about what they need to expedite the process.”

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Still, it’s unclear whether the schools in question will be able to start with the staff they need. “The worst thing would be classrooms without teachers,” Brakke added. “Some of [the TFA members] have moved their lives and their families to Minnesota to teach here.”

A more detailed look at the issue appeared on MinnPost Friday morning. It includes context and a chronology of the board’s history regarding TFA.

“Forty-six regions around the country are using this program,” said board member Loy Woelber, superintendent of Westbrook Walnut Grove and Tracy Area Schools, right before casting one of the two votes in TFA’s favor. “We’re going to have to justify what we’ve done.”

It was the 11-member board’s second vote on the TFA request to renew a variance that grants temporary teaching licenses to its recruits while they fulfill the requirements for a full license.

In May, with one member absent, it deadlocked 5-5. Assistant Commissioner of Education Rose Hermodson urged the board, which operates independently of the Minnesota Department of Education, to reconsider.

Last year, TFA-Twin Cities had requests for more than twice as many new teachers as it had resources to train and place. This year, it has requests from principals of 14 high-performing charter schools and Minneapolis Public Schools for more.

If the issue before the board was procedural, members’ comments and questions for testifiers seemed more like a referendum on TFA, which has been placing teachers in Twin Cities schools since 2009.

Two years ago, Gov. Mark Dayton signed two laws that would enable teachers certified by alternative training programs to qualify for Minnesota teaching licenses. Typically, licenses are granted only to graduates of teacher programs at approved Minnesota colleges.

The board took months longer than the Legislature anticipated to create a process for complying with one of the laws. It has yet to comply with the other, which was passed two and a half years ago.

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“If you don’t like the law, come back to us at the Legislature and ask us to change it,” Sen. Terri Bonoff, a Minnetonka DFLer and one of the laws’ backers, told the board Friday. “This conversation is akin to the Republicans and Democrats arguing in the Legislature, where we pit one side against the other, with traditional teachers against alternatively prepared teachers.”

The state’s largest teachers’ union, Education Minnesota, has campaigned against TFA’s expansion in the state, last month organizing letters and phone calls successfully calling on Dayton to veto a $1.5 million appropriation that would have helped the program meet demand.

Five of the board members — all Dayton appointees — have union leadership positions. Two represent traditional teacher preparation programs, whose  association also has lobbied against TFA.

The two members who voted in favor of the variance request were Woelber, whose seat is designated for an administrator, and Roseville School Board Member Erin Azer.

“This is a ‘Minnesota Nice’ version of union thuggery,” said Brian Sweeney, director of external affairs for Charter School Partners (CSP), the organization that lobbied for the alternative certification laws two years ago. “A lot of people who supported Gov. Dayton over the years feel betrayed today. This is his Board of Teaching.”

(Full disclosure: In addition to the Kramer Disclaimer in an earlier story on the vote noting that TFA’s national co-CEO Matt Kramer is the son of MinnPost founders Joel and Laurie Kramer, Matt Kramer’s wife, Katie Barrett Kramer, works for CSP.)