Most college graduates who benefited from a grant program aimed at increasing the number of teachers of color in Minnesota later became public school teachers, according to a legislative auditor's report released Tuesday.

But a lack of reliable data makes it difficult to assess what kind of impact the program is having on what's been a multiyear quest to diversify the state's teacher workforce.

The program, which dates to 1997 but has changed over the years, is one of several key strategies being promoted at the State Capitol this year by the Coalition to Increase Teachers of Color and American Indian Teachers in MN.

The coalition wants to see the grant program's annual budget raised from $1 million to $6 million — part of what it hopes will be investments totaling up to $80 million over two years.

State Rep. Jim Davnie, DFL-Minneapolis, who chairs the House Education Finance Division, said he expected the panel, which heard the report Tuesday, to work to sharpen the program as it weighs the "mosaic of strategies" in play to hire more minority teachers.

In 2020-21, eight state higher education institutions received a total of $970,000 under the program and used nearly all of it to provide direct assistance to teacher candidates for such costs as tuition, books and exam fees. Demand was much higher, however, with $2.7 million in requests received, said Yelena Bailey, director of education policy for the Professional Educator Licensing Standards Board (PELSB), which administers the program.

The legislative auditor's report noted that teachers of color and American Indian teachers composed about 5% of the state's teacher workforce between 2015-16 and 2018-19.

During those years, the percentage went up slightly — a 0.05% increase — the audit states. But the review also noted issues that include a lack of uniformity in how districts and charter schools collect teacher data. PELSB should, the auditor said, standardize and improve its data collection to provide a better picture of the race and ethnicity of teacher candidates and licensed teachers.

Bailey said the board supports the findings and recommendations.

"Minnesota students need high quality teachers that look like them," she said.

According to the audit, 590 college students received grant funding between 2015-16 and 2019-20. Of those, 230 graduated by July 2020 and 272 were enrolled last year, indicating they still were working toward their degree, the audit states.

The auditor also reviewed outcomes for 171 students who graduated between 2015-16 and 2018-19 and found two-thirds obtained standard teaching licenses and almost three-quarters worked as public school teachers in Minnesota at some point after graduation.

The teachers of color coalition also is pursuing funding for "grow your own" programs, which take educational assistants, for example, and put them on a fast track to a teaching license through hands-on training and college or university coursework. That proposal would increase the annual funding for such programs from $1.5 million to $8.5 million.

The auditor urges the Legislature to look more closely at how the various efforts fit together when making its decisions.

Anthony Lonetree • 612-673-4109