Weeks before schools open their doors for the start of a new academic year, Minnesota education officials are finalizing the overhaul of the state's teacher licensing rules.
State lawmakers approved the sweeping changes, including the creation of a tiered licensing system and a new licensing board, in 2017.
Since then, the new board has been drawing up the rules for the system and taking feedback on a few controversial issues, including mentoring programs for new teachers and requirements for training teachers about working with students of various backgrounds.
This week, Administrative Law Judge Barbara Case weighed in on those two issues and others, ruling that the Professional Educator Licensing and Standards Board was correct to require mentoring for less-experienced teachers and to set up specific rules for "cultural competency" training for teachers.
The board's decisions on those issues had been challenged by several lawmakers who said such requirements went too far and would hinder school districts' ability to hire teachers and make decisions about their training.
The judge's ruling, which will be reviewed by the licensing board at a meeting next week, was applauded by Education Minnesota, the state teacher's union. The group has been vocal with its concerns that the new licensing system could allow for unqualified teachers to earn licenses and end up in Minnesota classrooms.
In a statement, union President Denise Specht said she's glad the judge agreed that teachers who lack formal instructional training and experience should have more built-in help.
"We've been very concerned that the law permits, for the very first time, people with no formal training in education to be hired as licensed teachers," Specht said. "We argued that these 'Tier 1' teachers should at the very least have well-trained, experienced mentors as they learn on the job. We're relieved to see that the judge has ruled that only districts and charter schools with qualified mentorship programs will be permitted to hire this new class of teacher."
Others closely following the development of the new licensing system, however, say the mentoring requirement may make things more confusing because it doesn't match existing state law. Josh Crosson, senior policy director for the education advocacy group EdAllies, said the state currently suggests that schools have mentoring programs but doesn't require or set guidelines for them. He said that means some schools could struggle to hire new teachers — undermining the point of the licensing system overhaul, which was initiated to ease the shortage of teachers by making hiring and licensing less complicated.
"We just want to make sure that confusion is addressed," he said.
In her ruling, Case also agreed with the licensing board's move to set specific requirements for teacher training about working with students from different cultural, racial, religious and economic backgrounds, rather than allowing individual schools to set up the parameters of such training.
The licensing board will now be tasked with refining the rules on both of those issues and others. That work is running behind schedule because the new licensing system technically went into effect July 1.