By Tom Steward | Watchdog Minnesota Bureau
It’s responsible for ensuring public schools get quality teachers, yet the Minnesota Board of Teaching is getting progressively poorer marks from administrators, legislators, teachers and education advocates.
The board now faces its toughest exam — a 10-month investigation by the Office of the Legislative Auditor — the equivalent of going to the principal’s office.
“People from the outside feel they are not well served. The laws are not getting implemented. I mean, we joke sometimes, and say that ‘M.S.’ — Minnesota Statutes — stands for Minnesota Suggests. That some things get done and some things don’t,” Lisa Larson, a nonpartisan analyst with the Minnesota House Research Department, said during a recent roundtable, laying the ground rules for the investigation.
Mounting concerns over transparency, poor communication and resistance to implementing changes mandated by the Legislature have the formerly low-profile agency in the state’s crosshairs.
“We’re also looking at the board of teaching’s processes generally. Are they transparent, are they timely, what are they based on? Just looking at their whole process for the pieces of the teacher licensure for which they’re responsible,” said Judy Randall, project manager for Office of the Legislative Auditor.
Yet one hot button issue stands out: the convoluted process for approving licenses for out-of-state teachers who want to work in Minnesota. A 2011 state law was supposed to streamline the licensure process to attract more diverse teachers to tackle one of the nation’s worst minority achievement gaps.
Randall might want to put Michelle Hughes on speed dial to see how that’s working out. Hughes is following the audit closely from her California classroom, where she remains stymied in her efforts to return to her native state.
A licensed teacher with 12 years’ experience teaching students with learning disabilities, Hughes was instructed to take more college courses to qualify for a Minnesota license. The San Francisco educator’s C.V. includes licenses for K-12 special education, K-6 elementary education and certification as a trained reading recovery teacher.
“At this point I feel like I’ve given them not only adequate but ample materials with which to measure my ability to meet requirements for full licensure in general education, special education with the added disability experience,” Hughes said in an email. “The OLA (Office of Legislative Auditor) should be sure to eliminate the unnecessary and insulting steps in this process that discourage teachers like myself from wanting to teach in their state.”
After joining a lawsuit with three out-of-state teachers trying to get credentials validated in Minnesota, Hughes received a temporary Minnesota license that expires in June. Not enough of an olive branch to bring her back or to drop legal action.
“The process should be clear and transparent, and the timeline should be reasonable and known to candidates. They also need to decide upon the standards and not refer folks to outside institutions,” said Hughes, who’s baffled by her dealings with the board over the past 20 months.
The Minneapolis attorney representing Hughes has already met with state investigators, including concerns over the abrupt discontinuation of the portfolio process for demonstrating teacher equivalency.
“In my experience, applicants have been unable to understand why they were not granted licenses, or what is expected of them to get licenses,” said attorney Rhyddid Watkins, who has represented numerous teachers before the board. “Instead, the board simply tells applicants to enroll in a Minnesota college, even if they have multiple master’s degrees and decades of experience.”
Charter schools that recruit experienced, out-of-state instructors welcome the audit.
“It looks like they’re going to be asking the right questions, and they’re going to seek answers,” said Daniel Sellers, executive director of MinnCan, an education reform advocate.
Board of Teaching officials did not comment on the state audit, which will be delivered to lawmakers in February.
“A reasonable expectation is that our findings and recommendations are considered and contribute to the discussion at the Legislature. Nobody is required to follow our recommendations, but hopefully they are seriously considered for what they are — independent, nonpartisan, fact-based information,” project manager Randall said.