H. Adam Harris, a professional actor who also teaches theater at the St. Paul Conservatory for Performing Artists, says earning a teaching degree shouldn't be the main benchmark for determining whether someone can lead a classroom.

"I believe an alternative path says there are different ways, different measures of gaining the skills I need to teach," he said.

But Abby Kelley-Hands, a special education teacher and coordinator who works in the Cambridge-Isanti school district, says making room for more teachers without traditional training backgrounds is a losing proposition for both students and staff.

"I don't want to set kids up to fail with poorly trained and poorly prepared teachers, and I don't want to set teachers up to fail, either," she said.

As Minnesota schools make their way through their first year under a new teacher licensing system, they're entwined in a vigorous debate over what it takes to be a teacher — and what those decisions mean for professional standards, the state's growing teacher shortage, and efforts to recruit and retain teachers of color. At the State Capitol, bills proposed by DFL lawmakers — and championed by the state's powerful teachers' union, Education Minnesota — have attempted to edit the new rules to remove perceived "loopholes" they say set lower standards and infringe on the teaching profession.

The bills have met with strong resistance from Republican lawmakers, education advocacy groups and some school administrators and teachers, who say it's too soon to tear up a licensing system that's not yet six months old. But both sides are poised to continue the discussion on a topic they say is central to the quality of public education in Minnesota.

The state's new teacher licensing system went into effect in October 2018, nearly a year and a half after a vote by the Legislature. Prompted by concerns that the older system was overly burdensome for out-of-state teachers trying to relocate to Minnesota — and by a lawsuit over the state's alternative teacher licensing process — lawmakers opted to replace it with a "tiered" system, with four levels based on teachers' educational backgrounds, training and experience. At the same time, the Legislature replaced the Board of Teaching with a new Professional Educator Licensing and Standards Board (PELSB).

As the new board began granting licenses, supporters of the change were upbeat. They said the changes were helping to ease Minnesota's teacher shortage and fill critical positions in areas like career and technical education. The new system provides a clearer path for people who used to enter the classroom under a "community expert" designation and wish to stay on as full-fledged teachers.

But others, particularly the teachers' union and leaders of teacher training programs, pushed lawmakers to revamp the system. Rep. Mary Kunesh-Podein, DFL-New Brighton — a teacher and school library media specialist — introduced a bill that took aim at the system's process for allowing teachers with nontraditional backgrounds to earn the state's highest levels of licensure.

Teachers at the lowest level — those who enter the field with work experience in the subjects they teach, rather than a teaching degree — would only be allowed to renew their license a single time. Schools would be prohibited from placing students in classrooms led by teachers with lower licensure levels for two years in a row, and districts would be required to publish the licensure levels of their teachers on their websites.

In addition, the bill would make it harder for teachers who lack traditional educational backgrounds to work their way up to higher licensure levels without getting additional training or a teaching degree.

Kunesh-Podein said she doesn't want to dismantle the brand-new system, but she does believe the state should tackle areas that could become problems as soon as possible.

Possible impact on teachers of color

Kelley-Hands, the Isanti special education coordinator, said she's concerned about teachers who enter schools without training that could help them properly identify when a student may qualify for special education and write the legal documents related to those students' specialized plans.

"It feels like we're constantly reacting to crisis after crisis that's caused by teachers who are not prepared to be there," she said.

In the first six months of the new system, about a third of the nearly 3,000 licenses issued at the lowest tier of the new system — not requiring teacher training — were for special education teachers.

But other teachers, including some who took the traditional path of earning a teaching degree, say their colleagues entering the profession from different backgrounds are an asset.

Ben MacKenzie, an English teacher at Hiawatha Collegiate High School, a Minneapolis charter school, said he works alongside a number of teachers with lower-level licenses — the teachers the bill would seek to restrict from renewing their licenses multiple times or from teaching the same students two years in a row. MacKenzie said he's benefited from their perspectives, as have their students.

"We don't create a factory mind-set model of how you create a student," he said. "We shouldn't have that for teachers."

MacKenzie is also troubled by the potential impact the proposed changes could have on the number of Minnesota teachers of color.

About 34 percent of the state's students are nonwhite, but just 5 percent of teachers are people of color. But those teachers account for nearly 10 percent of the holders of lower-level licenses — those who would be affected by the proposed changes.

"In real numbers that's close to 900 educators of color that currently as it stands today have a clear, understandable path to permanent licensure in the state of Minnesota which would allow them to stay in the classroom," said Daniel Sellers, executive director of the advocacy group EdAllies. "This bill would interrupt that pathway and instead cap the number of times teachers could renew their licenses, and make it harder to get permanently licensed."

In a letter to lawmakers, Minneapolis Public Schools Superintendent Ed Graff expressed similar concerns, saying additional restrictions could dissuade out-of-state job candidates from moving to Minnesota.

"Out-of-state recruitment is an essential element of districts' efforts to diversify our workforce," he wrote.

But Kunesh-Podein, the author of the House bill — and a teacher of color herself — disagrees. She said the changes wouldn't restrict access for teachers of color, and noted that she's also the author of a separate bill that would help bring more teachers of color into the classroom with scholarships, loan forgiveness and mentoring programs.

Bernie Burnham, a longtime elementary teacher who now serves as president of the Duluth Federation of Teachers, said she hopes the discussion will shift toward helping more would-be teachers get the resources and training they need. Burnham said she's had experience from both perspectives: She took an unusual path into teaching after being a classroom volunteer for years, but eventually got a teaching degree with the help of a program for training teachers of color. She now hopes lawmakers can help other people follow her path.

"I think that if we want more teachers of color, which we do, what we need to do is find ways to help them get their degree," she said. Teachers of color "don't want our licensing standards weakened. They want to obtain their degree and be a part of that system," she said.

Erin Golden • 612-673-4790