Amid educator shortage, Minnesota bill endangers thousands of special ed, rural and tech teachers

Amid educator shortage, Minnesota bill endangers thousands of special ed, rural and tech teachers

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This story comes from The 74, a nonprofit news organization that covers education in America.

A bill moving through the Minnesota Legislature would curtail a popular path to a teaching credential, potentially removing hundreds of educators in high-needs areas from classrooms and throwing up roadblocks for future teachers. In rolling back a hard-won, five-year-old overhaul of the state’s teacher licensure system, the change would have an outsized effect on special education; instructors who are native speakers of Somali, Hmong and other languages spoken in immersion schools; career-technical instructors; and educators of color, who currently make up 6% of the state’s teacher workforce. 

Up to 4,400 educators could be affected, including thousands who had been promised full licenses after three years as provisional teachers. But many now would be forced to go back to school and re-earn their credentials at a traditional college of education in the state once their temporary license expires.

Most devastating for the state’s highest-needs students: The proposed change could impact 2,000 special educators, a category of teachers in desperately short supply. A 74 analysis of newly available state data reveals that schools serving the children with the most profound and intense disabilities would lose the largest share of their teaching staff — many needing to replace two-thirds, or more. 

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A number are located in rural areas that have long struggled to recruit educators with specialized skills. More than 84% of Minnesota school systems report not being able to hire enough of these teachers, particularly those specializing in autism spectrum disorder, emotional behavioral disorder and learning disabilities.

  • In Minneapolis, a school for students with volatile behavior would lose six of its 10 teachers.
  • A public charter school catering to autistic students would lose four of its six faculty members.
  • Three rural multidistrict programs serving children whose needs are too specialized for their small, home districts would lose three-fourths of their teachers. 
  • A number of language-immersion schools and career-technical education programs could lose two-thirds of their teachers, while numerous schools where 90% or more of students are impoverished stand to lose 50% to 75%.

Who would fill those suddenly empty classrooms is unclear. 

The affected teachers earned their credentials under a reformed system that was intended to ensure that enrolling in traditional colleges of education is not the only way to become a Minnesota teacher. But the board created five years ago to oversee that system is dominated by in-state training programs and the statewide teacher union that represents their faculties, and has tried repeatedly to repeal most of the new ways to qualify for a teaching license.

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The idea of once again requiring the vast majority of would-be teachers to enroll in colleges of education is rooted in the belief they will be better educators, says Yelena Bailey, executive director of the Professional Educator Licensing and Standards Board. “We have had really good experience with people who did [traditional] teacher prep,” Bailey told The 74. “People who have demonstrated mastery of professional standards tend to do better and stay longer.” 

This claim, however, is not based on any localized analysis of the proposed reform or the state’s teacher training landscape. Minnesota requires schools to evaluate teachers but does not compile or analyze the resulting data. Nor has it examined the effectiveness of its teachers colleges or of educators with non-traditional backgrounds who were licensed after the system changed in 2018.    

The board has asked lawmakers for $800,000 to help the special education teachers pay to earn new credentials — a subsidy that works out to $400 a head. 

The bill would leave intact a brand-new rule allowing experienced teachers licensed in other states to work in Minnesota, as well as a handful of startup training programs outside of higher ed for people with a bachelor’s degree in a field other than education. 

In 2016, after a decade of pushback by the education college lobby and the union, the state’s Legislative Auditor recommended a wholesale reboot to Minnesota’s teacher credentialing system. In addition to being virtually impossible to navigate for anyone who did not graduate from a traditional training program, the auditors noted, the rules for who qualified for a license were arbitrary and contradictory.  

Educators hoping to move to the state with degrees or teaching experience elsewhere often were required to submit course syllabi, exam results or other old, hard-to-resurrect information to prove their preparation was “substantially equivalent” to what they would have learned in Minnesota. 

If they could not show that, they were told to take classes or work toward a new degree from one of the state’s colleges. Among other problems, this made it nearly impossible for a teacher trained at a Historically Black College or University or a Tribal College to get a license without starting over — an issue in a state with a nearly all-white teacher corps. 

For some native speakers of Somali, Hmong, Karen and other languages hoping to work in immersion schools, as well as plumbers, mechanics, IT specialists and other people hoping to teach in career prep programs, there weren’t — and, in many cases, still aren’t — Minnesota training programs for their particular license area. 

In a bipartisan compromise opposed only by the colleges of education and the union, in 2017 lawmakers created the new board and rules allowing people who had not earned a degree from an in-state college of education to demonstrate their teaching abilities with other credentials or classroom experience elsewhere.

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Under a new, four-tiered system, people who completed a Minnesota educator preparation program could get permanent tier 3 and 4 licenses. Those using the new alternate criteria were limited to temporary tier 1 or 2 credentials.

Tier 1 licenses are good for one year and may be renewed three times — perhaps more if the teacher works in a high-needs area.  

Tier 2 was the chief category designed to provide alternatives to earning a degree at a Minnesota teachers college. Anyone with a tier 2 license — which requires significantly more experience than tier 1 — who gets good classroom evaluations for three years is eligible to apply for a full credential. By last year, the first in which most were eligible, 99 tier 2 licensees had moved up to permanent credentials.   

Opponents started pushing back even before the reform went into effect for the 2018-19 school year. Out of the gate, however, the tiered system proved popular — and effective at licensing educators to work in shortage areas. Within three years, 4,400 of the state’s 80,000 working teachers were on a tier 1 or 2 license, with another approximately 8,000 holding other, pre-existing, credentials that allow certain teachers to work outside their area of licensure. 

The first two times the Professional Educator Licensing and Standards Board asked lawmakers to sever the path from a short-term to a permanent license, dozens of teachers with Ph.D.s and years of experience in other states showed up to protest. Their main argument was that even in its infancy, the new system was quickly diversifying the ranks of the state’s educator workforce. One-fourth are people of color, compared with 6% of Minnesota teachers overall. 

This year, with union-backed Democrats in charge of all three branches of state government, a third version of a bill to change the new system is enjoying relatively smooth sailing. Its chances were helped by an amendment that would grandfather in some teachers currently moving from temporary to permanent status. It’s unclear how many would qualify for that protection. 

A number of educators and school system leaders have complained that lawmakers this year limited the testimony they would hear in opposition to the bill. Among those who ended up submitting written statements instead were associations representing the state’s school boards, school administrators, rural districts and the Minnesota Administrators for Special Education.

The chair of the state House Education Policy Committee, Laurie Pryor, did not respond to requests for comment regarding complaints about restrictions on the number of testifiers.        

None of the debate has touched on the disproportionate impact rolling back the new law would have on special educators, who have been in short supply for decades. Right now, tens of thousands of children with disabilities are not getting legally mandated pandemic recovery services because there are not enough teachers with the credentials to serve them.  

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Last summer, one of the largest employers of tier 1 and 2 educators, Minneapolis Public Schools, announced it was moving its academic recovery services for its most challenged students online — a possible violation of law — because it could not find enough educators to staff its programs. Almost two months into the 2022-23 school year, the 28,000-student district was still short about 130 special educators.

In March, Minneapolis’ tier 1 teachers started to get their annual notices that they are being excessed — removed from their jobs for potentially weeks or months, pending a district decision to rehire them. Because of the shortages, they typically have more alternatives than other teachers who lose their jobs, which translates to churn for the schools that lose them. 

“This exacerbates instability for schools,” says Paula Yadel Cole, executive director of the Minnesota chapter of Educators for Excellence. “They think, ‘If there’s another district that’s willing to hire me, that’s where I am going.’” 

Understaffed special education classrooms pose problems that compound on one another, she adds. A shortage in an individual school puts pressure on the remaining special educators to serve larger caseloads. 

The solution often proposed — state-funded scholarships for these teachers to enroll in traditional colleges of education — still leaves root causes of the special educator crisis unaddressed. 

“There’s this denial, I think,” Cole says. “I am just worried we are not taking this teacher shortage seriously.”

For two decades, advocates and policy experts have decried a nationwide lack of flexibility in training, recruiting and compensating special ed teachers. Educators who want to work with students with disabilities often have to do extra coursework — which means more debt — to take a job that involves significant amounts of paperwork and, in the case of teachers who work with behaviorally challenged kids, responsibility for a segregated classroom.

To the barriers to persuading teachers to enter special education, add the hurdles to keeping them there. Research shows that some 20% of new special educators who also hold general-ed licenses don’t choose to work in special education. Among those who do, turnover is higher than in other specialties. One study found that between the 2015-16 and 2016-17 school years, special educators were 11% more likely to leave the classroom and 72% more likely to change schools than general education teachers. 

According to an analysis published two years ago by the Learning Disabilities Association of Minnesota, less than a fifth of those with the appropriate licenses are working in special education, while more than a fourth of inactive teachers hold special education licenses. Some 38% of teachers who fall into the long-existing categories “special permission” and “out of compliance” are working in special ed. 

Few Minnesota districts have experimented with paying special educators more in recognition of their extra training and higher workloads. However, St. Paul Public Schools recently announced that, in anticipation of 70 unfilled special education positions for 2023-24, it will pay a $10,000 bonus to qualified applicants — including teachers already in the district who are willing to change assignments. It will also give $2,000 to any current tier 2 special educator who earns a tier 3 credential by November 2023.

In February, a number of Educators for Excellence members — some at risk of losing their hard-to-fill jobs — signed a letter asking lawmakers to wait to determine whether the licensing rules truly need to change until there is data on how well the teachers who have taken advantage of the new credentialing system are doing. 

“Sadly, this provision has been attacked every single year in the five years since it became effective,” they said. “Why rush to dismantle the system before we’ve had an opportunity to see the full impact on student experience and achievement?” 

Disclosure: Walton Family Foundation, Carnegie Corporation of New York, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Philanthropies and the Joyce Foundation provide financial support to Educators for Excellence and The 74.

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