The Minnesota Department of Education, pictured at its previous headquarters in Roseville in April 2021. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

The U.S. Department of Education has approved Minnesota’s plan to fix its special education teacher licensing system, according to an August 14 letter. The fix will require a change in state law during the next legislative session. 

When completed, the plan will resolve the federal government’s complaint—first reported by Sahan Journal—that Minnesota allows teachers without sufficient training to teach special education. It will also allow Minnesota to keep receiving more than $200 million in annual federal funding for special education programs.

In a May letter, Valerie Williams, director of the Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP), warned Minnesota’s education commissioner, Willie Jett, that the state’s tiered teacher licensing system failed to meet federal standards that require special education teachers to be “appropriately and adequately prepared and trained.”

Most Minnesota teachers have completed a teacher preparation program. But the state also allows applicants with just a bachelor’s degree and no formal training to work as teachers, if more qualified candidates are not available. In Minnesota’s teacher licensing system, this pathway is called a Tier 1 license. Some school districts have embraced these licenses as Minnesota struggles with an ongoing teacher shortage, particularly for special education positions.

Under federal law, however, teachers “participating in an alternate route to special education certification” can teach for a maximum of three years.

In her May letter, Williams and the U.S. Department of Education focused on Tier 1 special education teachers who have been teaching for more than three years. She requested a corrective-action plan within 60 days.

The Minnesota Department of Education submitted a corrective action plan in mid-July. In its plan, the department pledged to work with the legislature to amend the law so that Tier 1 teachers cannot work in special education positions for more than three years. The state also said it would notify school districts that employ the 17 teachers who would be affected by this law change, and pointed to funding efforts to help train special education teachers.

In her August 14 letter, Williams wrote that her office had reviewed the corrective action plan and “concluded it meets the initial required action.” Minnesota has until May 17, 2024, to implement its plan. Until the state completes its action steps, the federal government’s finding of noncompliance will remain open, Williams said.

State education leaders react to solution

“We are grateful for OSEP’s thoughtful review and we look forward to working with the legislature and our partners to implement our plan,” Daron Korte, assistant commissioner for the Minnesota Department of Education, said in a statement. He said his department would work with the Professional Educator Licensing and Standards Board to develop a policy proposal for the legislature to consider in February.

Josh Crosson, executive director for the education advocacy group EdAllies, previously praised the state’s action plan as “focused.” 

Laura Mogelson, the legislative liaison for the Minnesota Association of Colleges of Teacher Education, said that she was pleased federal authorities had accepted the state’s plan. But she emphasized that she remains concerned about the limited scope of the fix.

“I still think that the Office of Special Education Programs is still not actually understanding our tiered licensure system,” she said. “They’re missing the point that the time of three years is one of the problems. But a bigger problem is the fact that there’s an assumption that a Tier 1 teacher is engaged in some sort of participation in an alternate route to special education certification.”

By definition, Tier 1 teachers are not enrolled in a certification program, Mogelson said. If they do enroll in a certification program, they gain a Tier 2 license. That is to say, even under the new agreement, any college graduate with a bachelor’s degree could be teaching some of the state’s highest-needs students without receiving training. 

Mogelson said she hoped the legislature would address licensing laws more broadly in the next session.

“We have an opportunity in front of us right now to look at all of the components of the minimal credentialing law,” she said. She suggested that the legislature could look at what other states have done to address similar issues. “We know that preparation and support really matter and affect retention, because this isn’t just a shortage. This is also a retention problem.”

Under the state’s corrective action plan, it must issue guidance to districts and charter schools about Tier 1 special education teachers by August 28. In September, the Minnesota Department of Education will submit a legislative policy proposal to the governor’s office.

Legislators have pledged to take up the licensing proposal from the state education agencies when the session begins in February. Senator Steve Cwodzinski (DFL–Eden Prairie), who chairs the Senate Education Policy Committee, told Sahan Journal in July that he would work to advance the legislative proposal as quickly as possible.

“It should have bipartisan support, so we’ll get this through right away,” he said.

Becky Z. Dernbach is the education reporter for Sahan Journal. Becky graduated from Carleton College in 2008, just in time for the economy to crash. She worked many jobs before going into journalism, including...