Credit: Photo illustration: Kim Jackson | Sahan Journal

The U.S. Department of Education has warned Minnesota that it must fix its licensing system for special education teachers. If it fails to do so, Minnesota could ultimately risk more than $200 million in federal funding.

At issue: whether Minnesota special education teachers may teach without training toward a professional license, and if so for how long.

As Minnesota struggles with a teacher shortage—particularly across special education positions—some districts have turned to recruiting applicants who have a bachelor’s degree but no formal teacher training. That is to say, if you have a four-year college degree in any subject and a job offer from a school, you can work as a teacher in Minnesota. Those candidates are eligible for a Tier 1 teacher license: a one-year license with limited renewals.

But according to the federal Office of Special Education Programs, the way Minnesota distributes these licenses to special education teachers runs afoul of federal laws.

In a May 17 letter, Valerie Williams, director of the Office of Special Education Programs, informed Minnesota’s commissioner of education, Willie Jett, that Minnesota statute and administrative rules are out of compliance with federal law requiring special education teachers to be “appropriately and adequately prepared and trained.”

Though a Tier 1 license is meant to be short-term, Williams said, Minnesota Department of Education staff had reported that “special education teachers with Tier 1 licenses routinely teach special education for more than three years without demonstrating progress towards full certification.” In other words, according to the federal government, Minnesota has allowed special education teachers to work in classrooms without enough formal training.

Williams requested a corrective action plan within 60 days of the letter: that is, by July 16.

In brief statements, Minnesota government agencies acknowledged the letter and said they were working on a solution.

Minnesota Department of Education communications director Kevin Burns told Sahan Journal his department was working with the Professional Educator Licensing and Standards Board (PELSB) to meet the 60-day deadline. “We will have more information about that plan once it is submitted.”

Yelena Bailey, the executive director of PELSB, said that her agency “is offering support as MDE prepares a plan to address the concerns.”

Minnesota’s tiered teacher licensure system is governed by state law, and any changes to it would require legislative action. Chairs of the House and Senate Education Policy Committees pledged to take action when the legislative session resumes in early 2024.

“It’s definitely forefront, first thing we’re going to address in February when we get back to work,” said Senator Steve Cwodzinski (DFL–Eden Prairie), the chair of the Senate Education Policy Committee. 

Representative Laurie Pryor (DFL–Minnetonka), the chair of the House Education Policy Committee, also said the legislature would take up this issue when it reconvenes.

“That policy with the tiered licensing system is in direct conflict with what the federal government is saying is important for receiving this special education funding,” she said. Though the legislature recently passed some changes to the teacher licensing system, she said, they were not focused on special education licensure. “I think when we come back in February, we’ll have a very different, focused look at what we can do.”

Any teacher licensure changes will apply to districts and charter schools across Minnesota. But changes could have particular consequences for students and teachers of color. While only 6 percent of teachers statewide are people of color, more than a quarter of Tier 1 teachers are. And Black and American Indian students make up a disproportionate share of students receiving special education services in Minnesota.

With a teacher shortage already straining school districts across Minnesota, some educators worry that addressing the federal government’s concerns could make it even harder to fill special education jobs.

“I would assume it would also be a federal violation for us to have no teacher for children in special ed classrooms.”

Steven Unowsky, superintendent of Richfield Public Schools

“I would assume it would also be a federal violation for us to have no teacher for children in special ed classrooms,” said Steven Unowsky, the superintendent of Richfield Public Schools.

Minnesota’s tiered teaching licenses reflect different levels of training

Minnesota’s tiered teacher licensing system became law in 2018. If you have completed a teacher preparation program and have met certain other requirements, you are eligible for a Tier 3 or Tier 4 “professional” license. These licenses are associated with more job security and eligibility for tenure.

But you can also become a teacher in Minnesota without completing a traditional preparation program. If you have a bachelor’s degree and a job offer from a school, you can become a teacher with a Tier 1 license. If you have a master’s degree in a subject area (for example, English or computer science), or you are enrolled in a teacher preparation program, you can obtain a Tier 2 license.

Before hiring a less experienced Tier 1 teacher, districts must prove they couldn’t hire a more qualified teacher. As districts have struggled to fill teaching vacancies, some have focused on recruiting Tier 1 candidates for a variety of positions. In an August 2022 survey, many of Minnesota’s largest school districts told Sahan Journal that special education vacancies were particularly difficult to fill. Some see recruiting Tier 1 candidates as a way to diversify the teaching workforce.

But waiving requirements for professional training can be harmful to special education students, said Kyena Cornelius, an associate professor of special education at Minnesota State University, Mankato.

One in six Minnesota kids receives special education services. Their special education teachers may specialize in disabilities ranging from autism to emotional or behavioral disorders. They are responsible not only for providing instruction, but also keeping students on track with their individualized education plans, tailored for each child’s specific needs and challenges in school.

“To not have any training—not understanding why students are doing the things they’re doing in class or why they’re not learning the general ed curriculum—is not going to help,” Cornelius said. “A Tier 1 teacher in Minnesota doesn’t have any of that training. The federal law says, okay, well, get it. You have three years to finish your training to become a teacher. That means you have to be showing progress toward becoming fully prepared.”

To come into compliance with federal law, Cornelius said, the state “would need to make sure that they can provide some meaningful preparation or meaningful professional development to all Tier 1 teachers that are assigned to specialized classrooms, and to get them at least on a track toward becoming fully prepared.”

Cornelius said any new changes should apply to all Tier 1 special education teachers.

According to a 2022 state report, more than 400 Minnesota teachers across special education disciplines have a Tier 1 license. 

“If Tier 1 is still on the table for Minnesota, we are already out of compliance,” she said. In other words, Cornelius believes that any Tier 1 licenses for special education represent a violation of federal guidelines.

EdAllies, an education-advocacy group that supports alternative pathways for teacher licensing, interpreted the federal memo to apply to a narrower set of teachers.

According to data EdAllies obtained from the state’s education licensing board, just 12 special education teachers statewide held a Tier 1 license for three years. Another four maintained a Tier 1 license for four years. By these numbers, just one percent of Minnesota’s Tier 1 special education teachers have exceeded the federal time limit.

“The new letter says very clearly that Tier 1 teachers can teach special education for three years, but they cannot teach for a fourth year unless they’re moving up the tiers,” said Josh Crosson, the executive director of EdAllies.

What’s at stake?

Congress provides special education funding annually to each state under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. For Minnesota, that amount comes to $219 million for students aged 3–21. It’s a significant boost to state education spending. 

To put it in context, Minnesota’s increase to this year’s state funding for the special education cross-subsidy—an amount advocates heralded as historic and long overdue—totals $304 million.

But that $219 million in federal funding comes with conditions. To qualify, states must check off certain boxes on a form, promising the federal government they are in compliance with the law.

According to Williams’s memo, if Minnesota cannot guarantee that it is meeting standards in special education teaching, it must check “no” on one of the boxes in its funding application. That is, Minnesota cannot certify that “the State educational agency has established and maintains qualifications to ensure that personnel necessary to carry out this part are appropriately and adequately prepared and trained, including that those personnel have the content knowledge and skills to serve children with disabilities.” 

Accordingly, Minnesota checked “no” to that question for its fiscal year 2023 grant application, submitted this spring.

So does that mean Minnesota is about to lose more than $200 million in federal funding for special education? Not immediately.

So does that mean Minnesota is about to lose more than $200 million in federal funding for special education? Not immediately.

In an email to Sahan Journal, a U.S. Department of Education spokesperson said that when a state checks “no” on one of the application questions, it must provide a date for when it will come into compliance. Generally, that process results in a conditional grant approval, the spokesperson said. Minnesota received a conditional grant this year, and the U.S. Department of Education released funds to the state on July 1. When Minnesota checked “no,” it said it would come into compliance by June 30, 2024.

What happens if Minnesota does not come into compliance by then?

The U.S. Department of Education spokesperson said the agency has several enforcement options available and assesses each situation to determine which might be most appropriate. 

In recent years, there have been two instances in which the Department has withheld federal IDEA funds, the spokesperson said. In both cases, the state or territory had received “needs intervention” status for multiple years in annual letters that determine state compliance with IDEA.

Minnesota is currently marked as “meeting requirements” based on its conditional grant approval—several steps above “needs intervention.” The Department intends to work with Minnesota to bring the state into compliance, the spokesperson said. 

In other words, it’s possible the feds could pull funding—but it probably wouldn’t happen until the state’s status had been downgraded for several years.

State did not act after October letter

During a December meeting, the Professional Educator Licensing and Standards Board debated advocating for changes to teacher licensure. That conversation was prompted by an October memo that Williams from the U.S. Department of Education sent out across the country, reminding states that special education teachers must be fully qualified, even during a teacher shortage.

At the time, Unowsky, of Richfield Public Schools, represented superintendents on the licensing board. He advocated against pushing for changes to the law, citing the difficulty of hiring special education teachers. Ultimately, the board sided with Unowsky, the Pioneer Press reported.

During the 2023 session, the legislature allocated $20 million to help some districts train special education teachers, but did not address the special education licensing issues.

Cwodzinski, the chair of the Senate Education Committee, said that the October letter from the feds did not convey a sense of urgency to act.

“It wasn’t like a dire, you need to deal with this now,” he said. “It was just a heads-up, we’re a little bit concerned about your license system for special ed teachers.” As a result, he said, special education licensure was not a priority during the 2023 legislative session. By the time the federal government issued its May 17 letter, only a few days remained in the session.

Unowsky told Sahan Journal that the October memo did not make clear that Minnesota was out of compliance with federal law, and that he did not see it as PELSB’s role to advocate for changes to the licensing system. He believes the May letter left ambiguity about the continued viability of Tier 1 special education teachers, and questioned whether the federal government would actually pull funding over differences between state and federal licensing laws.

Crosson, the executive director of EdAllies, said the state licensing changes proposed in December would have been too broad.

“Getting this new letter gave us a lot of clarity on what they’re looking at and how we need to respond,” he said. 

How would changes to the licensing system affect schools and teachers?

Unowsky said that districts already are limited in how they hire Tier 1 teachers. Before his district can hire a Tier 1 teacher, it must first post an available job for an extended period of time. The district can only hire a Tier 1 applicant if there aren’t more qualified candidates. And those positions must be reposted every year, Unowsky said.

Under these limits, Richfield employed two Tier 1 special education teachers last year, Unowsky said. One of them advanced to a Tier 2 license, meaning they started a professional training program, and the other is not employed in the district for next year.

If districts cannot hire Tier 1 teachers in the future, he said, they need guidance on what they should do if they cannot fill a special education position. From a superintendent’s perspective, “It feels like a choice between a staff member or no staff member,” Unowsky said.

Cornelius, the special education professor at Minnesota State University, Mankato, said that when Tier 1 teachers enter a preparation program, they move to Tier 2—and thus, are in compliance with federal law. She suggested the state could come up with its own program for affected teachers.

Crosson, of EdAllies, said the letter makes clear the need for professional development for Tier 1 teachers, but does not specify that must happen in a teacher preparation program. Traditional teacher preparation programs present barriers: They often cost tens of thousands of dollars and require a large investment of time. Crosson said requiring these programs hurts teacher diversity and does not produce better educational outcomes.

“We need to first require Tier 1 and Tier 2 teachers to have access to high-quality professional development,” he said. “We need to create alternative pathways into Tier 2 so they can demonstrate progress.”

That’s especially important after the legislature limited Tier 2 licenses in this past session—likely compounding the number of teachers with Tier 1 licenses in the future, Crosson said.

Cwodzinski, the Senate Education Policy Committee chair and a longtime teacher, pledged to listen to people most affected by the licensing issues and teacher shortage before crafting a bill.

“Working with special ed teachers throughout all those years, they’re pretty close and dear to my heart,” he said. “I don’t want to do anything without talking to them first and finding out what’s best for them and meeting the needs of the kids, the parents, and the teachers.”

The Minnesota Department of Education must present a plan by July 16. A department spokesperson told Sahan Journal the agency intends to meet the deadline.

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...