Advocates for Teach For America are upset that a state board split Friday on granting variances that the program’s recruits need to teach without licenses, granting four of seven.

A divided Minnesota Board of Teaching also rejected a variance for one Teach For America alumna who had taught in another state, then reversed itself to grant it, but tabled another such alumna’s application for more information.
The board granted all of the others in a pool of 24 applicants for a community expert waiver from teacher licensing requirements.

“It’s outrageous that they’re not letting the principals make those decisions,” said Joe Nathan, a longtime advocate for school reform.

But board member who opposed the waivers said it wasn’t TFA they were after, but filling elementary education positions with unlicensed people when plenty of licensed elementary education teachers are looking for work.  For one rejected waiver, the TFA applicant has been chosen over 60 people holding elementary licenses who applied for the job. Many of the board’s variance votes were on a 4-3 split, with four members missing the meeting.

Most of the approved variances were for immersion programs where special language skills are required, or for summer school-only jobs.

Teach For America is entering its fifth school year in Minnesota. It is a national program that recruits recent college graduates, giving them short but intensive training before sending them to schools with large proportions of poor and minority students. TFA recruits get mentoring and college training while on the job.

TFA has been granted a blanket waiver from state licensing for the past four years, but a board dominated by union teachers appointed by DFL Gov. Mark Dayton has taken a tougher line. It denied the granting of a fifth blanket exemption at its June meeting.

That left TFA with two avenues for getting its expected 43 new recruits into Twin Cities area classrooms this fall.  Most are seeking temporary limited licenses, but those require that the applicant had at least a college minor in the field.  TFA filed 23 applications for such licensing later Friday.  The other avenue is applying as a community expert, someone without a license but with a special expertise.

Statutory criteria specified for judging such an application include: the person’s qualifications, the reasons for a variance, the district’s efforts to hire a licensed teacher, the amount of teaching time for which the person would be hired, the extent that the district uses other nonlicensed community experts, the nature of teaching responsibilities, and the proposed pay level.

Hiawatha Academies, a highly regarded Minneapolis charter school, had the most riding on the expert variances. It got six of nine variance requests; one was tabled, and two were rejected. Both rejections were for TFA applicants.
Eli Kramer, Hiawatha’s executive director, called the decision disappointing.  He said that the expanding Hiawatha network of charter schools reviewed thousands of resumes and interviewed hundreds of applicants to pick 30 new teachers, of whom he said only two were new TFA recruits.

“The thing that I’m concerned about or wondering is whether the Board of Teaching means to be removing control for hiring decisions away from principals,” he said. Getting the decision also puts Hiawatha in a bind with school opening Aug. 19, he said.

Arch Academy, a Minneapolis charter startup, also had much riding on the variances, with two of four classroom teachers seeking them.  A relieved Angela Mansfield, an award-winning for Minneapolis teacher, said that she hoped that the reason the board granted her variances was her pitch that TFAers  ranked well against 18 licensed applicants.

Shannon Blankenship, a senior vice president for TFA, said he was glad that four of its applicants were approved for variances, but called the board’s rejection of three requested variances inconsistent. He said the decision undercuts the ability of a school to hired for the needs it defines.

TFA appliants granted variances were Grace Rybak and Patricia Garcia, Arch Academy; Erik Erkkila, Metro Schools Charter; St. Paul, and Ashley Brown, St. Paul City School, St. Paul.  Rejected were Kathryn Busch and Katherine Munday, Hiawatha Academies, and Sara Gapp, West Side Summit Charter, St. Paul.