After a period of uncertainty this summer, last week the Minnesota Board of Teaching did the right thing by approving license waivers for a group of Teach for America educators.
In granting the waivers, the board reversed a previous decision, thus respecting the choices of local principals who had already hired TFA participants. The approvals also are in keeping with the state’s new alternative licensure law, which was designed to encourage different routes to becoming classroom teachers.
On Friday, the board granted 38 waivers for “community expert” licensing exemptions, including 16 from TFA and reversed itself on two earlier TFA denials. That brought the total of board-approved TFA applicants this summer to 19. Another 14 have been approved through the state Department of Education, and five are awaiting approval.
The TFA applicants had been hired earlier this year to work in metro-area charter and traditional public schools. Principals selected them, believing that the TFA program would receive a blanket waiver for its participants as it had the previous four years.
However, the blanket waivers were approved by a board appointed by former Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty. This year, a majority of the board members were selected by DFL Gov. Mark Dayton. His appointees are believed to be more representative of the traditional union-backed approach to teaching and generally are opposed to alternative licensure.
The decision on the blanket waiver was the second notable setback for TFA under the current administration. Earlier this year, Dayton vetoed a relatively small $1.5 million appropriation for TFA to recruit, train and support 50 additional teachers.
The new teacher-dominated board questioned granting blanket waivers for a particular program and said that all teaching candidates should be evaluated individually. That forced TFA to seek individual exemptions for its participants.
As this page previously argued, at the very least the Board of Teaching could have signaled earlier that it was making the change to give TFA more time to adjust. Rejecting the blanket waiver put the TFA teachers in the position of not knowing whether they’d have the licenses they needed to start their jobs this month. But after Friday’s decision, they’re certain they can go to work, and their administrators won’t have to scramble to find replacements.
The board resolved the problem for the current group of aspiring educators, but it is a temporary solution. As the board chair pointed out, the “community expert’’ designation is really not intended to be a path to licensure. Rather, it’s typically used to hire someone with a special, community- based expertise.
It’s encouraging that the education department supports finding a way for TFA to apply for alternative licensure in a way that would restore its general waiver. The program is working on that application. If it meets all the criteria under the new state law, it should be approved.
Though not a magic bullet for all that ails schools, TFA has proved itself here and across the nation, and about 15 states now fund the program. Twin Cities corps members receive intensive summer training before entering classrooms, and continue working toward a full license at Hamline University during their two-year stints. Just over 70 TFA grads are currently working in metro-area schools.
The teachers union’s view of TFA as a threat is misplaced. Minnesota has about 50,000 full-time teachers, and the vast majority of them come from traditional schools of education. That won’t change now or in the foreseeable future — nor should it.
TFA alone will not close the achievement gap or solve other challenges facing our schools. Rather, it is one way for school leaders to hire staff who want to work and are specially trained to work with the most challenged students and schools.
Quality alternative teaching programs like TFA deserve state support — not an endless mix of union-backed obstacles.