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Teachers sue state board over license delays, denials

By   /   April 10, 2015  /   News  /   No Comments

By Tom Steward | Watchdog Minnesota Bureau

Four teachers are suing the Minnesota Board of Teaching for arbitrarily denying licenses “to well-qualified teachers who clearly meet the statutory requirements.”

So, what’s it take for teachers licensed in another state to obtain a license to continue their careers in Minnesota? A Harvard education? Bilingual capabilities? Years of teaching disadvantaged children? A special education degree?

None of the above?

The complaint accuses the teaching board of “consistently refusing to follow Minnesota law,” which requires licenses to be issued to out-of-state applicants with “essentially equivalent” degrees and experience. In the 113-page lawsuit filed in Ramsey County District Court, the teachers claim the state agency systematically fails to explain why candidates fall short and deprives them of their right to an administrative appeal.

“So as long as you know how to teach, and you know the subject area, if you demonstrate those two things you’re entitled to a license. That’s the law, that’s objectively, unquestionably, the law,” said Rhyddid Watkins, a Faegre Baker Daniels attorney who’s representing the teachers pro bono.

The Minnesota Board of Teaching had yet to file a legal response with the court as of Friday morning. The state board’s top official made no apologies, however, for compelling out-of-state educators to take extra coursework and to get approval from an in-state college or university preparation program.

“We disagree with a number of the accusations that are being made, and are still very focused on wanting to make sure that expectations for all teachers are equitable, in terms of earning a licensure and regardless of where you’re trained,” said Erin Doan, executive director of the Minnesota Board of Teaching. “We believe there are certain components of training that are important for teachers in our Minnesota classrooms that we would ask that of anyone, regardless of your path to teacher licensure.”

Plaintiff Michelle Hughes, a San Francisco teacher hoping to return to Minnesota, holds licenses for K-12 special education and K-6 elementary education, in addition to a certificate as a trained reading recovery teacher. Besides California, the plaintiffs hold licenses from the District of Columbia and Texas.

“I joined this lawsuit because I had been involved in back and forth with the Minnesota Department of Education and the Board of Teaching for 19 months in an attempt to get my licenses transferred and the process had been arduous, unclear and seemingly arbitrary,” said Hughes, one of four plaintiffs in the lawsuit. “I had received conflicting information from different people regarding my qualifications, and they had reversed decisions based on the same information I had given them from the very beginning.”

MDE Photo

CLASSROOM IMPACT: The lawsuit against the Board of Teaching maintains depriving highly experienced and educated out-of-state teachers undermines MN efforts to reduce the educational achievement gap, one of the nation’s worst.

A key method for demonstrating equivalency, the portfolio process, was discontinued “due to budget reductions and policy changes,” according to the Minnesota Department of Education website.

”This statute specifically says that people can apply for a license for the first time or for additional licensure by demonstrating they have a pedagogy background and experience in the content,” said Watkins, who has successfully challenged the board on behalf of several out-of-state teachers.

The Board of Teaching often refers applicants to Minnesota colleges and universities for additional coursework in human relations and other areas. The process allows some teachers to get licenses while they complete class work, including two plaintiffs.

“They were actually required to take extra coursework, but they were issued a license to get them out into classrooms and teaching in Minnesota,” Doan said. “But like many teachers who come from other states, they were asked to complete requirements that are very jurisdictional specific requirements, so things that only Minnesota is going to ask you to do.”

The legal challenge maintains the state board’s actions deprives minority students of qualified teachers with the experience to help close Minnesota’s “indefensible educational achievement gap between white students and students of color” — one of the worst in the country.

“Keeping experienced teachers from our neediest students is criminal. I could have been teaching there this year had my licenses been transferred in an efficient manner. I have years of experience with diverse populations and communities,” said Hughes, who, after the lawsuit, was notified she will be granted a K-6 teaching license.

The legal challenge comes at a time when state legislators are considering more changes in the law to further streamline the granting of teaching licenses.

“We’re in the midst of a sea change. It’s hard to say where things are going to go,” said Doan.

“A lot of people keep trying to pass new laws to solve this problem, but the way I see it, the laws have already been passed,” said Watkins.

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Tom formerly served as staff reporter for Watchdog.org.