In 2011, Joan Dobbert contacted the Minnesota Board of Teaching to enquire about getting a teacher license. She had a degree and 18 years of experience as an early childhood educator and an administrator at a nationally accredited preschool program. She wanted to show she was qualified for a license by using a process in which would-be teachers submit portfolios showcasing their skills.
The process was in fact so successful that in the seven years it had then been on the books more than 500 teachers had used it to obtain licenses. Some, like Dobbert, did not have the exact academic credential required for a particular license. Many were trained in other states and wanted to move to Minnesota.
After Dobbert submitted reams of documentation about her experience, the official overseeing the portfolio process suggested a master’s degree would bolster her application. But a year later when Dobbert returned, M.A. in hand, the portfolio process had been discontinued, unilaterally and without explanation.
And that new degree? Turns out it wasn’t the precise one that would allow her to use the traditional route to licensure—though she could use it to teach prospective pre-kindergarten teachers. The fix? Dobbert was told — again — to take more graduate classes. Fed up and convinced nothing short of a court order would fix the situation, in April 2015 she and 19 other would-be teachers with similar stories filed a lawsuit alleging that the teaching board arbitrarily and illegally denies licenses to qualified candidates.
Like many states, Minnesota faces severe shortages of teachers licensed to teach math, science and engineering, and to teach special education students and children learning English, among others. The student body is rapidly diversifying, yet 96 percent of Minnesota teachers are white. But whereas many states are making it easier for teachers from nontraditional backgrounds to enter the classroom, Minnesota’s Board of Teaching has done the reverse, making it harder.
All of the board’s volunteer members were appointed by a governor who has been a strong supporter of the state’s teacher union, Education Minnesota, which has lobbied furiously against alternative licensure. Most are union organizers or representatives of the traditional education colleges whose exclusive franchise is threatened, and whose faculties are also represented by Education Minnesota.
Earlier this month, the district court judge in St. Paul overseeing the case found the Board of Teaching in contempt for ignoring an explicit December order to begin accepting applications such as Dobbert’s. The agency has until the end of the month to appeal or pay Dobbert a $250 fine and her attorneys $7,000 in fees and court costs.
Citing ongoing litigation, board representatives declined to comment for this story.
The amount of money is small. But the signal Ramsey County District Court Judge Shawn M. Bartsh sent was huge. State agencies are almost never held in contempt by the courts. Indeed the publication Minnesota Lawyer reported it knew of no local precedent.
“The court does not take the granting of sanctions lightly and would far have preferred Defendant to simply follow the law,” Bartsh ruled. “That not having happened, the Court is forced to resort to the only other means available to it — sanctions.”
Yet few who have followed the controversy, which has turned the teaching board’s once-moribund monthly meetings into standing-room-only affairs, are surprised. In the six years since Dobbert first sought a license, Minnesota lawmakers have passed two new alternative laws aimed at smoothing the path to licensure. The board hasn’t implemented either.
Rationales offered for the inaction have varied, ranging from a lack of financial resources to a lack of clarity on the changes being sought. But at meetings where the new routes to the classroom are discussed, board members have repeatedly expressed displeasure with the laws’ intent as well as a desire to protect the state’s teacher colleges.
Earlier this year a state auditor issued a scathing report calling the state’s teacher licensure system “broken.” And in December, the judge overseeing Dobbert’s case issued an order saying the plaintiffs had a legal right to submit a portfolio. She gave the board a month to begin processing applications.
But by May, when Bartsh presided over a hearing regarding the contempt issue, Dobbert had still not been allowed to submit an application for a license. Indeed, her calls and emails to board administrators have gone unanswered.
“I thought my order was pretty simple,” Bartsh said at the hearing. “It really was just ‘follow the law.’ And the law, as I read it, said: If I'm a teacher from Kansas and I want to come to Minnesota — or wherever, and I want to come to Minnesota and try and be a teacher, the legislature has decided I get to avail myself of this process.
“And I am still baffled why the Board of Teaching or the Department of Education thinks it gets to do anything other than [that],” she added. “It's not an obtuse law.”
It’s a question Minnesota education advocates have been asking for years. The portfolio process Dobbert tried to use to get a license was created in 2004, with the aim of making it easier for career-changers and other would-be teachers with nontraditional training to secure licenses. Until the process was created, the only sure path to the classroom was to attend a traditional teacher preparation program at a Minnesota college or university.
The portfolio process was an immediate success, particularly when it came to licensing teachers for jobs in high-poverty schools. So much so that in 2008, the Board of Teaching lobbied the state Legislature to enshrine the pathway in law, in an effort to expand it. In 2009 and 2011, the teachers who had gotten their credentials through the process testified at the Capitol at the board’s request, asking for more funds.
At the same time, education advocates had been lobbying the Legislature to create two more ways to secure a teaching credential. At the time, Minnesota was one of just nine states without a licensing reciprocity or portability law, which makes it easier for teachers with proven success elsewhere to move to the state.
Led in large part by the state’s charter school lobby, advocates wanted the board to create a clear process for granting Minnesota licenses to teachers who could demonstrate classroom success elsewhere. And they wanted the state to allow alternative certification programs like Teach for America to train teacher candidates in the state.
Not only does Minnesota have a teacher shortage with certain specialized licenses, the growing cadre of high-performing charter schools had a hard time finding teachers trained in strategies that delivered better outcomes for impoverished and challenged kids. School leaders were working hard to attract teachers with these skill sets only to find them denied licenses.
After two years of lobbying, in 2011 lawmakers passed a bill containing both measures, which became the first measure then-incoming Gov. Mark Dayton signed into law. It was supposed to go into effect Aug. 1, 2011.
The 11 members of the Board of Teaching, appointed by the governor, balked. Most months discussion about the new pathways didn’t make it onto the agenda; when it did, the talk centered on how to assure that the backgrounds of the nontraditional applicants would be “substantially equivalent” to conventional teacher training.
Dominated by members of the statewide teacher union, Education Minnesota, and by representatives of the state’s traditional colleges of education, board discussion sometimes went so far as to extend to “protecting the franchise.” Calling any kind of alternative licensure a “lowering of standards” for Minnesota teachers, in 2015 the union was still lobbying against making it easier for outsiders to get licenses.
For a few months nontraditional teachers simply skirted the argument by using the portfolio process. But in early 2012, a note went up on the Minnesota Department of Education’s website, announcing the process had been halted. (In Minnesota, the Board of Teaching makes licensing rules and the Department of Education processes applications.)
“Due to budget reductions and policy changes, the Licensure via Portfolio process has been discontinued,” it explains. “Interested candidates who were unsuccessful are encouraged to contact a Minnesota college or university to complete a teacher preparation program.”
It is true that lawmakers slashed funding for the board, which found itself desperately short-staffed by 2011. But the administrator of the portfolio process was actually an employee of the Minnesota Department of Education. And because the process was intended to be self-sustaining financially, teachers paid fees starting at $300 for the evaluation of their portfolios.
Last year one of the attorneys representing Dobbert and her co-plaintiffs, Rhyddid Watkins used public records requests to try to discern whether the program had in fact been halted because of a budget crunch. From 2009 to January of 2011, the program took in $15,000 more than was spent processing applications, according to emails obtained by the lawyer and submitted to the court.
In 2015, state lawmakers passed another law mandating the creation of a clear path to licensure for out-of-state teachers. The new law did away with some language board members had argued was open to their interpretation. And it included a deadline, which has long since come and gone.
In the meantime, Watkins and another Twin Cities attorney, Nathan Sellers, had grown frustrated representing hopeful teachers who, one by one, resorted to threatening lawsuits to get licenses. Acting pro bono, in April 2015 they filed suit on behalf of a group of plaintiffs—some with highly sought national certifications and degrees from Ivy League schools—hoping a court order would at last compel the board to comply.
In December, Bartsh ruled that the board had violated state law by discontinuing the portfolio process and gave it a month to restart the program and begin processing applications.
Dobbert submitted her materials online on January 20. In March, having heard nothing, she e-mailed the board’s director, had her lawyer contact the board’s attorney and even enlisted one of the state lawmakers who voted both times in favor of the new law. She got no response.
Until recently the executive director of the advocacy organization MinnCAN, Daniel Sellers pushed for the original alternative certification law and has acted as the go-to person for frustrated out-of-state teachers. (Nathan Sellers is his twin brother.) He’s concerned about the fates of the individual plaintiffs, but also about one of the proposed long-term solutions.
In March, the Office of the Legislative Auditor called for a wholesale overhaul of the state’s teacher licensing system. Among other things, the investigators suggested resolving ongoing confusion about division of responsibilities between the board and the Education Department by giving the board more control over all teacher licensure matters.
Board officials declined to comment on the contempt citation, but did issue a statement suggesting they see this overhaul—under consideration by a state task force—as the ultimate remedy.
If there’s anything recent years have revealed, Daniel Sellers says, it’s that as a group of part-time political appointees, members of the Board of Teaching can’t be held accountable. Better, he believes, to hand the process to the state Education Department.
“Creating clear lines of responsibility is the key thing,” he says. “The contempt order is a clear indication of that.”
And what of Joan Dobbert? According to her attorney, she still has not been told what her application for a Minnesota teaching license should contain, how it should be submitted and what standards will be used to evaluate her qualifications.