Representative Cedrick Frazier (D–New Hope) says his bill to change teacher licensure will help raise standards to close learning gaps. But not everyone agrees. Credit: Minnesota House of Representatives; Evan Frost | MPR News; Photo collage Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

Pretty much everyone agrees that Minnesota needs more teachers of color. 

While a third of the state’s schoolchildren are people of color, only 5 percent of their teachers are; lawmakers of both parties hope increasing educators’ diversity can help close learning gaps. But while some measures to increase teacher diversity gain bipartisan traction in the Capitol, one bill has become controversial. 

The proposal, part of the Minnesota House’s omnibus education bill–the overarching spending plan for the two-year biennium—would change the state’s teacher licensure system to make it harder for educators without formal higher-education training to get a license. 

EdAllies, a Minnesota education advocacy group, says this bill could push untold numbers of diverse teachers out of classrooms. Teachers, charter school administrators, and the Minnesota School Boards Association have testified against the bill’s proposed changes.

But Representative Cedrick Frazier (D–New Hope), the bill’s chief author, told Sahan Journal these assertions are “misinformation.” The head of the state teacher licensing board, which authored the bill, says the bill won’t force any teachers to leave. Instead, it will actually support teachers of color in obtaining professional licenses. 

This bureaucratic spat may sound wonky and academic. But the stakes are real for the diversity of the state’s teacher workforce. Teachers of color are more likely to hold a Tier 1 or Tier 2 license. But without a professional Tier 3 license, they are more vulnerable to layoffs and often can’t get tenure or host a student teacher. 

People on both sides of the issue agree the system needs tweaks to benefit teachers of color, and even agree on what some of those changes should be. But as the dispute boils over at the Capitol, the opposing sides—the state agency sponsoring the bill, and the advocacy group agitating for more flexibility in the system—have rarely seen eye to eye on even the basic facts of the proposal.

So will this bill push teachers of color out of the classroom? We interviewed the executive directors of the main groups supporting and opposing the bill, and its chief author, to find out.

First, how does teacher licensure work? Minnesota’s system provides four tiers of teacher licensure that reflect increasing levels of formal training.

A Tier 1 license could include a community expert (like a carpenter or a spoken word artist), or a Chinese immersion teacher with no formal teacher preparation in a U.S. university. 

Someone who has a master’s degree but not a teaching credential could hold a Tier 2 license. That license could also go to someone who is enrolled in or has completed teacher preparation, but hasn’t passed their exam.

There’s a big distinction between Tiers 1 and 2 and the “professional licenses” in Tiers 3 and 4. Starting at Tier 3, teachers enjoy more job security and may qualify for tenure—mileposts for sticking in the profession. 

Since new legislation went into effect in 2018, teachers can advance up the scale just by completing a certain number of years in the classroom, without formal preparation. That’s what this bill is trying to address–and what its opponents object to.

Who is pushing these changes and why? The bill comes from the Minnesota Professional Educator Licensing and Standards Board (PELSB), the government agency that licenses Minnesota teachers. The licensure changes also have the support of Education Minnesota, the state’s largest educators union. 

Frazier, the bill’s chief author, also works as a lawyer for Education Minnesota. He has said the union didn’t ask him to carry the legislation and doesn’t support every provision in it.

Alex Liuzzi, PELSB’s executive director, says it’s normal for a law to need tweaks a few years after a big overhaul. The bill also introduces some more significant changes to Minnesota’s teacher preparation standards: specifically, a pathway that currently allows teachers to upgrade their licenses after a certain number of years in the classroom. In this existing pathway, a Tier 1 community expert can become a Tier 3 professional teacher in a few years.

“I am not stating hyperbole when I say with this pathway in place, Minnesota has the lowest bar to become a professional teacher in the nation,” Liuzzi said. “We’re the only state that allows someone to have a license to teach anywhere, in any school, without any teacher preparation.”

Minnesota’s standards for a Tier 3 license are now so low that some other states won’t accept Minnesota’s licenses, he said. (That is to say, a Tier 3 teacher from Minnesota would not be eligible to take a teaching job in California or Kansas. They’d be granted a provisional license in Wisconsin or North Dakota.)

Children of color and from poor backgrounds are more likely to have inexperienced teachers, Frazier, the bill’s author, noted. “As a father and as a Black man, I know my kids are more likely to fall within these gaps, and I don’t want this for any kid,” he said.

Josh Crosson, the executive director of EdAllies, disputed that traditional teacher preparation programs are equitable and effective. “The way we’ve built our licensure system has excluded teachers of color,” he said, noting that traditional preparation programs have resulted in an overwhelmingly white workforce. “The system we’ve created has made it difficult for teachers of color and teachers from economically disadvantaged backgrounds to earn a license.” 

Changing these experience-based pathways would make it even more difficult, he said.

How many teachers would this bill impact? According to EdAllies, this bill could affect all of the state’s 3,400 teachers who currently hold Tier 1 and Tier 2 licenses, as well as prospective teachers in years to come. That’s a more diverse group than the Minnesota average: Educators of color comprise 21 percent of Tier 1 and Tier 2 license holders, but just 5 percent of all teachers statewide. 

Right now, those Tier 1 and Tier 2 teachers could conceivably advance down the current pathway–using years in the classroom to secure a Tier 3 license–but wouldn’t be able to do so in the future. 

But PELSB says a much smaller portion of teachers would be affected.

Of the 2,500 Tier 2 teachers, nearly 1,000 would actually earn promotion to a Tier 3 license. Those educators have completed a teacher preparation program, but are stuck on a Tier 2 license because they haven’t passed a difficult content and pedagogy exam. This group accounts for 260 teachers of color—half the state’s Tier 2 teachers of color.

The bill would give those teachers a professional Tier 3 license, and instead move the test so it comes after Tier 3—on the way to a Tier 4 “master teacher” license. (That’s a change EdAllies supports.)

Another 1,000 Tier 2 teachers are either enrolled in teacher preparation programs or have a master’s degree. Those teachers won’t be affected by the bill, Liuzzi said. In fact, he added, many of the teachers who have testified against the bill wouldn’t be affected.

That leaves 539 teachers who wouldn’t be eligible to renew their Tier 2 license after it expires. (A Tier 2 license lasts two years.) Those teachers have likely completed many but not all the requirements of a teacher preparation program, and have spent at least two years in the classroom. But they could get their license through another pathway. They could pursue a portfolio process (more on that in just a second), or they could downgrade to a Tier 1 license (which would also allow them to continue teaching).

“We believe that there is nothing in this bill that takes anyone out of the classroom,” Liuzzi said.

Credit: Data: PELSB. Graphic: Aala Abdullahi | Sahan Journal

About 25 percent of those 539 teachers are people of color. To address equity concerns and close this gap, Representative Frazier added an amendment to allow teachers who fill high-demand “shortage areas,” including teachers of color, to qualify for a Tier 3 license after three years in the classroom. (In other words, teachers of color could likely continue to use the process to advance to the next level.) 

That leaves about 400 white teachers who may need a new pathway—if none of them fill shortage areas (an extensive list that includes elementary education, social studies, and math). The actual number is likely much lower, Frazier said.

But Crosson, from EdAllies, says teachers have told him that downgrading their license or encountering obstacles on the way to the next license tier would cause them to quit. The proposal, he says, creates gaps for teacher candidates who didn’t finish their training. Many struggle, for instance, to afford student teaching assignments, work training that is essentially an unpaid job.

“If we know that teachers of color are using Tier 1 and Tier 2 pathways to become teachers in Minnesota, I would hope that PELSB and our policymakers would find ways to keep them in the classroom, make sure that they become excellent educators,” he said.

What is the portfolio process? You have to demonstrate that you meet at least 125 different standards of effective educational practice, such as the ability to work with students with disabilities or English language learners. Specialized content areas (like elementary education or math) will have additional standards.

That may sound daunting. But for teachers who have finished all or most of a teacher preparation program, even if they haven’t completed student teaching, demonstrating they’ve met those standards should be easy, Liuzzi said. 

The portfolio process had a reputation for being cumbersome in the past, he acknowledged. But PELSB is launching a pilot program to support cohorts of educators through the process together. The agency has been speaking with organizations like Black Men Teach and League of Latinx Educators about partnering to support these groups.

Crosson says he hasn’t seen evidence of success in the portfolio pathway to licensure.

“I would be more convinced of that pathway if it were working more widely,” he said. “We shouldn’t cut pathways prematurely, hoping that licensure via portfolio is going to do well.” 

So does this bill push out teachers of color? Not directly. With Frazier’s amendment, the bill’s most immediate impact falls on the group of perhaps 400 white Tier 2 teachers who don’t fill a shortage area. They will need to find a different pathway if they want to continue pursuing a professional teaching license. 

Some Tier 2 teachers of color may not qualify for a Tier 3 license under the proposal, and will need to complete the portfolio process or find a different pathway, too.

Since the portfolio cohort model will be a pilot program, it’s difficult to predict its success with certainty. And some teachers may indeed choose to leave the classroom.  

Changing that pathway is, for EdAllies, an unnecessary obstacle to the state’s diverse Tier 1 and Tier 2 teachers, now and in the future. “We need to do everything in our power to make sure that they stay and that they become great educators,” Crosson said.

But PELSB and Frazier say their bill and amendment do exactly that.

“There will be people who will eventually not be teaching,” Liuzzi acknowledged. But he added, “I firmly believe, if our bill passed, the only people that would not be teaching would be people who have decided for some reason or another that they don’t think the state should be able to say who should be a professional teacher.”

What comes next? The final changes to teacher licensure will be negotiated in conference committee between the Republican-controlled Senate and DFL-led House before the legislature adjourns in mid-May. It’s just one of several changes that could have an impact on teacher diversity this session. While the House DFL supports the licensure changes, Senate Education Finance and Policy Chair Roger Chamberlain told Sahan Journal that he would prioritize protecting the Tier 1 and Tier 2 pathways into full licensure. 

If such an arcane, bureaucratic system can inspire so much heated debate, finding consensus—or even compromise—may not be easy. Meanwhile, Minnesota’s students of color are waiting.

Becky Z. Dernbach is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.