State ignores teacher licensing violations

  • Article by: COREY MITCHELL and JANE FRIEDMANN
  • Updated: April 22, 2011 - 3:16 PM

Regulators say it's too hard to enforce the rules, but some lawmakers want a tougher approach.

More than 900 Minnesota teachers over the past five years have violated licensing rules aimed at making sure that children get a proper education, including 62 instructors who taught with no license at all, according to a Star Tribune analysis of state education records.

The violations, which mostly involved instructors teaching the wrong subject or grade level, touched as many as 57,000 students in some 300 public school districts and charter schools across Minnesota, records show.

Some years, records show, more than half the classes at some charter schools were taught by unlicensed or improperly licensed teachers.

Despite the widespread problems, Minnesota does virtually nothing to enforce its rules. The state Board of Teaching stopped enforcing licensing violations several years ago, state officials said, partly because of the threat of costly lawsuits and time-consuming court hearings. Revoking a single license can cost close to $20,000.

The lack of enforcement worries some state lawmakers and other public officials, who question how the state will take on even more authority now as it adopts a newly approved alternative licensing program intended to bring nontraditional teachers into Minnesota's classrooms.

"The rules were developed for a reason," said Rep. Mindy Greiling, DFL-Roseville. "Why have rules if you don't follow them?"

The state's self-reporting system, which relies on schools to furnish licensing information on teachers, also has a loophole: Schools can underreport or fail to account for instructors who violate state standards.

"We only have the information that people give us," said Karen Balmer, executive director of the state Board of Teaching. "Is everything reported accurately? I don't know."

'Clueless' about violations

As 41 teachers in North St. Paul-Maplewood-Oakdale schools racked up 150 violations over the past five years, administrators were unaware of the extent of the problem. The district generated more violations than any other district in the state, records show.

"Until the Star Tribune pulled the data last week, we were clueless as to how we compared relative to others and never received any indication from anyone that our numbers were unusual or that this was an area of concern," Superintendent Patty Phillips wrote to district workers in an e-mail obtained by the Star Tribune.

In the e-mail, Phillips told co-workers that "we are addressing this issue and it will NOT be an issue as we move forward." In an interview, however, Phillips said she has no concerns about improperly licensed educators in her district, which had 586 full-time teaching positions last year.

"I know the people on that list," Phillips said. "There was good education going on in those classrooms."

To avoid licensing problems in the future, Phillips said she plans on asking state officials for more exceptions to licensing rules.

The state has been increasingly generous in that regard, records show.

The total number of waivers and other exceptions granted by the state Teaching Board more than doubled over the past five years, reaching a total of 9,785 in the 2009-2010 school year, state records show. At the same time, the number of improperly licensed teachers dropped more than 40 percent.

"Districts have the ability to paperwork their violations down to zero by applying to the [Education Department] for variances," Phillips said in the e-mail to her staff. "The teachers would still be teaching without the appropriate grade level or subject area licensure, but the variance would eliminate their inclusion in the year-end [Education Department] report."

Sen. Charles Wiger, a DFLer whose district includes Maplewood, said he's concerned about the lack of enforcement.

"If it's widespread, we need to take a very close look at the regulatory board," Wiger said. "What's the impact on these students? I'm not going to blame the teachers."

Unlicensed for six years

Jeff Riley, according to the state, was not among the violators.

But the trained chef said he worked at Broadway High School in Minneapolis for six years without obtaining a license -- a step that proves instructors have passed tests and met other requirements to show they're qualified to work in the classroom. Though the Minneapolis School District dismissed him in December for working without a license, Riley never received a warning from the state about his licensing problems.

"We weren't hidden," Riley said. "People knew about us. We had a great program."

Mark Bonine, the assistant superintendent charged with overseeing Broadway High, also was working without a proper license. Bonine's application sat on a desk for months at district headquarters until the Star Tribune raised questions about his licensing status.

"It did not affect his ability to do his job," said Pat Pratt-Cook, the Minneapolis schools' chief human resources officer.

Graduation for at least a dozen students at Broadway High School will be delayed this spring because their teachers lacked proper licenses, a problem that surfaced earlier this year after an internal investigation by the district. Schools Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson ruled that Broadway High students could not use any credits earned in a course taught by an improperly licensed instructor to meet graduation requirements.

Over the past five years, Minneapolis schools -- including a handful of independent charter schools in the city -- generated the second most violations in the state, with 63 teachers cited for a total of 138 violations, records show. The district had a total of 2,369 full-time teaching positions last year. Many of the violations were in alternative schools run under contract with the district or other specialty schools.

Lydia Lee, a Minneapolis school board member, said she broke the rules herself in the 1980s, when she taught earth and life science even though she was licensed to teach math.

"I can't say I did an excellent job," Lee said. "I did well enough."

Lee said she doesn't have "a lot of faith" in the licensing process. "Anybody should be able to teach a class if they can prove they know the subject matter and they can teach," Lee said.

A struggle to find teachers

The state Teaching Board oversees licensing for more than 50,000 working teachers, with fewer than 1 percent typically violating the rules in any given year.

Some violations represent clerical errors. Others happen because district leaders can't find enough licensed teachers for certain subjects, according to board officials.

At a public school in North St. Paul, for instance, a language arts instructor was cited for teaching geography. At an alternative school in Minneapolis, a social studies teacher filled in as an earth science instructor.

But some violations don't have easy explanations. In Duluth, for example, two instructors illegally taught for two years or more without licenses, receiving little more than warning letters from the state.

Licensing problems showed up in more than 100 assignments, ranging from band and dance to advanced algebra and physics. One of the biggest problem areas: Spanish, where thousands of students received instruction from nearly three dozen teachers lacking a proper license, records show. It was also a challenge finding properly licensed teachers for language arts and earth science.

"I don't want somebody who is not licensed in their content area," said board member Louise Wilson, chair of the Education Department at Bethel University in Arden Hills. "Can we control every single instance when school districts are desperate? No."

When faced with teacher shortages, the board defers to local districts on hiring and staffing decisions, allowing violations to linger for several years before stepping in. Suspending or removing teachers mid-year would represent a "significant impact" on students and schools, Balmer said.

The only two schools with violations to lose funding were punished because they failed to correct the violations in a timely manner, not the violations themselves, according to a spokesperson for the Minnesota Department of Education.

Some board members think the agency should consider getting tougher on licensing issues.

"By almost any measure, Minnesota does an excellent job," said James Bartholomew, a Board of Teaching member and education policy director for the Minnesota Business Partnership. But, he added, "if schools and districts are violating the law, we need to make sure something happens."

Some state officials aren't convinced a tougher stance is necessary.

Rep. Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington, does not support strict licensing standards, arguing that regular teacher evaluations would prove a better determinant of student success.

"Licensing alone is not a metric for success," he said. "We've tried. That has failed our children for 30 years."

The board's work won't get any easier. Over the next several months, regulators will be establishing criteria for alternative licensing and reviewing the effectiveness of the new system.

"None of us know right now what the impact is going to be," Wilson said. "I'm not opposed to alternative licensure as long as we keep the standards high."

corey.mitchell@startribune.com • 612-673-4491 jfriedmann@startribune.com • 612-673-7852

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