Law & Courts

Minn. Lawsuit Raises Questions About Teacher-Licensure Portability

By Stephen Sawchuk — May 12, 2015 6 min read
Teacher Aberdeen Rodriguez in her classroom at Green Central Park School in Minneapolis. Ms. Rodriguez, who has a "limited license" that expires this summer, is one of the plaintiffs in a lawsuit alleging that Minnesota makes it difficult for out-of-state teachers to obtain full licensure in the state.

All Aberdeen Rodriguez wanted to do was to teach English in her home state of Minnesota after seven years as a middle school teacher in Texas. She took and passed the state’s licensing tests and found a school willing to hire her. But then, she says, she was flummoxed when a state official suggested she might need to retake American and British literature to qualify for a license.

“In my mind I did all I could at the time to demonstrate that I was ready to teach in Minnesota,” Ms. Rodriguez said. “I could go to a community college and take some cheap classes, but I don’t see how that relates to what I’m doing day to day in the classroom.”

Her experience may not be unique.

Ten teachers, Ms. Rodriguez among them, sued the Minnesota Board of Teaching last month, alleging the board has given cryptic, even contradictory guidance to would-be teachers from out of state, and that it has ignored legislative mandates to smooth the process for earning a teaching license in the state. In all, the lawsuit claims, those barriers are preventing well-qualified candidates of color and those with experience teaching special populations from working in Minnesota, despite an apparent need for such educators.

“Instead, the board makes ‘case-by-case’ determinations based on arbitrary and inconsistent standards. As a result, similarly situated applicants are rarely treated similarly, and there is never transparency,” reads the complaint, initially filed April 10 in Ramsey County District Court.

The Minnesota Board of Teaching disputes the lawsuit’s thrust, noting that it has given many of the plaintiffs, including Ms. Rodriguez, provisional licenses.

According to Erin Doan, the board’s executive director, many of the disputes concern the licensing division of the state education department rather than the teaching board. For its part, she said the board is committed to working out the problems candidates face.

“Anyone who picks up the phone and calls the board, all of those people are receiving help,” Ms. Doan said.

Deferring Decisions

In theory, the state education department and the teaching board split licensing duties under a checks-and-balances arrangement, with the board setting licensing policy and hearing appeals and the department issuing licenses. In practice, the suit’s plaintiffs contend, the board’s failure to produce clear guidelines for vetting out-of-state teachers has made it impossible for its sister agency to do its job.

The lawsuit takes particular issue with the board’s interpretation of language in the state code that requires teachers from other states to have completed a preparation program “essentially equivalent” to that offered by Minnesota universities.

Michelle Hughes, a plaintiff in the lawsuit, said she has spent 19 months trying to prove why her California training is equivalent to Minnesota’s requirements—a process that ultimately required her to submit decades-old syllabuses. Her temporary license, which was granted only after the lawsuit was filed, expires this summer.

Finally, the lawsuit contends, the state essentially defers decisions on licensure to the state’s approved teacher colleges. Ms. Rodriguez’s limited license, for example, expressly encourages her to contact one of the state’s approved teaching programs about what additional courses might be required for certification.

“You go to 37 schools and you get 37 different answers about what courses you need to take, and why,” said Rhyddid Watkins, a lawyer who is representing the teachers pro bono. “The board of teaching is responsible for determining the standards for licenses; it shouldn’t be delegating that to private or for-profit schools.”

But Ms. Doan said that showing equivalency isn’t as simple as comparing course titles. Minnesota teaching programs must meet state standards, but have wide latitude in course design. As a result, they’re often in the best position to know what additional training candidates need.

The roots of the debate in the Gopher State run deeper than last month’s lawsuit.

In 2011, proponents of alternative-certification programs successfully got the legislature to approve a bill that requires the teaching board to implement a streamlined licensing process for teachers trained in other states. Four years later, the board of teaching has approved only one such method, and that has never been used, the complaint states; in fact, the board ended a “portfolio” licensing option that was initiated in 2008.

Supply Implications

Some see the board’s apparent hesitation in approving new options for out-of-state teachers as evidence of a symbiotic relationship between it and the college-based preparation programs it’s charged with overseeing. (An Education Week investigation earlier this year found that states rarely suspend even clearly faltering preparation programs.)

“Colleges of education have an incentive to tell a candidate that they need lots of courses,” said Daniel Sellers, the executive director of Minnesota Campaign for Achievement Now, an advocacy group that supports the lawsuit. “They have a financial stake in the current system.”

The lawsuit is coming at a time when some observers say importing high-quality candidates from out of state could help the state. Enrollment in teacher-prep programs, both nationally and in Minnesota, has been declining. And advocates of greater diversity in the teaching force note that Minnesota has a huge gap between its nearly all-white teaching force and its student population.

The lawsuit has attracted notice from state watchdogs. Recently, the Minnesota Office of the Legislative Auditor selected the Board of Teaching for a review, citing the lawsuit as one factor in its decision. And bills pending in the state would require the board to issue rules for granting credentials to out-of-state teachers.

It’s unclear if similar barriers to licensure such as those alleged in the Minnesota suit have been erected in other states, but the possibility exists because nearly all functions relating to teacher certification are controlled by state officials.

“Reciprocity doesn’t really exist anywhere, simply because you have 50 states and territories that have full control over the licensure of teachers and educators,” said Phillip S. Rogers, the executive director of the National Association of State Directors of Teacher Education and Certification, in Washington.

A National Problem?

One common barrier is when grade spans and licensure levels don’t match up, such as when a teacher who holds a K-12 special education license in one state moves to a state with separate certifications for elementary and secondary students.

In practice, Mr. Rogers said, once teachers have a few years of experience under their belts, moving to another state typically shouldn’t pose many problems. But because governors, state chiefs, legislators, and state boards of education all have a hand in licensing, formally aligning the rules can be a Sisyphean effort. “Oftentimes out of some kind of state pride, or even a more genuine reason—wanting to have well-prepared teachers—they change the requirements from the states around them,” Mr. Rogers said.

NASDTEC has tried to smooth matters by creating an interstate agreement system. Participating states, Minnesota among them, signal which other states’ credentials they’ll accept. But the compact is merely a tool for certification officers, not a formal agreement of reciprocity.

The issue of credential portability has received major policy attention in the past. In 2010, the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank, mounted a call for states to identify their top teachers and grant them a fully portable teaching certificate. But the idea did not seem to generate much interest among state officials.

At the moment, individuals like Ms. Hughes, the teacher who formerly worked in California, say they simply want to know what they’re supposed to do next in order to teach in Minnesota.

“I want the licenses I believe I deserve, and I would like there to be a clear process outlined for other folks like me,” Ms. Hughes said in an interview. “It should not take this long.”

Coverage of policy efforts to improve the teaching profession is supported by a grant from the Joyce Foundation. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the May 13, 2015 edition of Education Week as Minn. Lawsuit Tackles Portability of Teacher Certifications

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