Two Steps Forward, One Back: Teacher Diversity Bill May Push Hundreds of Minnesota Educators of Color from Classrooms

N’Jai-An Patters

The first thing N’Jai-An Patters may do in a few weeks, after congratulating the class of 2021, is dust off her resume. After eight successful years in the classroom, she is supposed to get a permanent teaching credential this summer. But a bill moving forward in the Legislature could block her path, one of two politically charged measures affecting diversity — or lack thereof — in the state’s teacher corps.

Patters teaches Advanced Placement government and politics to 12th-graders at Minneapolis’s Hiawatha Collegiate High School. Her path to the classroom was unconventional. She has a Ph.D. in history from the University of Minnesota and experience helping scores of educators burnish their skills, serving on committees that recommend candidates for master’s degrees and coaching classroom teachers to be more effective.

In a state where 95 percent of the teacher corps is white, there’s a shortage of people like Patters, educators of color who want to work in schools serving primarily students who look like her. But a provision of the bill, House File 1081 — initially dubbed the Increase Teachers of Color Act — would squeeze off a pipeline that’s attracted hundreds of diverse, successful educators with the promise of permanent licenses.

The measure contains a smorgasbord of incentives to attract people of color and Native Americans to teaching and to make Minnesota schools more hospitable: scholarships and loan forgiveness, hiring bonuses for educators of color who move to the state or work in areas where there are teacher shortages, requirements that districts address institutional racism and provide mentorship, training and culturally responsive materials.

Yet, at the same time, the House bill would eliminate a key provision of a three-year-old reform to the state’s teacher licensing system, making it very difficult for anyone who does not train in a Minnesota teacher preparation program, and many who start their teaching career in another state, to get a permanent license.

“It’s ironic,” says Patters. “On the one hand, here are all these things we are going to do to increase teacher diversity. But at the same time, we are not going to do these things that are working toward diversifying.”

More than 700 teachers of color are among the 3,400 who will be impacted if the law changes.

Dozens of teachers and school administrators have testified against the provision. “They took time from their day to beg for their licenses, but their concerns have been dismissed,” Matt Shaver, policy director for the advocacy group EdAllies, told lawmakers at a House hearing Wednesday. “Administrators, teachers, students and families are not asking for this change.”

The bill would also allow school districts and unions to agree to protect small numbers of teachers from underrepresented groups from layoffs. A separate bill under consideration in the state Senate would remove seniority as the sole consideration. Right now, teachers holding licenses targeted in the House bill often do not accrue seniority, so they are the first to be let go, which school districts say makes it hard to retain teachers of color.

Several Minnesota teachers of the year have been laid off in recent years, including 2020 recipient Qorsho Hassan, the first Somali American to win the designation.

Four years ago, lawmakers removed a requirement that seniority be the statewide default for determining how teachers are laid off, requiring districts to negotiate the process with their unions. The state’s largest districts simply wrote “last-in, first-out” clauses into their teacher contracts. Advocates argue that the Senate bill would take a step toward enabling schools to retain diverse educators.

A system a decade in the making

In January, when Gov. Tim Walz released his “Due North” education plan and accompanying budget request, racial equity was at its center. Alongside revising state academic standards to reflect indigenous history and making sure children of color get equitable shares of state resources, the governor called for a concerted push to recruit and retain diverse teachers.

Crafted by lawmakers from Walz’s Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, House File 1081 contains most of his wish list and sets a goal of increasing the share of teachers of color by 1 percent, or 630, per year.

In a year when issues involving racial justice have divided state lawmakers, the proposal has initial support from the Republican leadership of the state Senate. It’s unclear, however, whether GOP lawmakers will accept the changes to a licensing system that was more than a decade in the making.

Those changes are being sought by the state’s traditional colleges of education and the Education Minnesota teachers union, which also represents faculty at the teacher training programs, as well as by the Professional Educator Licensing and Standards Board. In addition to granting licenses, the board oversees teacher training programs, and until recently routinely refused to authorize alternative talent pipelines — such as Teach For America — not associated with a Minnesota college of education.

The president of the Minnesota Association for Colleges of Teacher Education, Rhonda Bonnstetter, testified at a recent House hearing that the proposed changes would still give educators with temporary licenses enough time to complete a preparation program.

Education Minnesota fought the overhaul of the licensing system and has pushed to roll back the changes in every legislative session since. “In 2017,” its agenda asserts, “the Legislature used this very real teacher shortage it created as a pretext to ram through an overhaul of the teacher licensure system that corporate-backed groups had wanted for years.”

In 2011, the Legislature passed a law ordering the now-defunct agency that oversaw licensing, the Board of Teaching, to create a transparent process for credentialing educators who move to Minnesota from other states and to authorize non-traditional training programs.

The board did not comply, touching off a tug-of-war that resulted in the passage of a second law, a spate of teacher lawsuits, a contempt order, a state auditor’s report and, finally, in 2016, a decision by lawmakers to tear down the old system entirely. The Legislature created a new oversight panel, the Professional Educators Licensing and Standards Board, and tasked it with granting four tiers of licenses.

Now, teachers who are trained in a college of education or other state-approved program and some teachers from other states may vault straight to Tier 3, a license that’s good for three years and can be renewed indefinitely. To secure a Tier 4 license, which enables a master teacher to mentor others, a teacher has to have held a Tier 3 license and completed a state-approved training program.

With narrow exceptions for career-technical education and some foreign language and art instructors, all four licenses require candidates to have at least a bachelor’s degree. Tier 1 licenses are good for one year and may be renewed indefinitely if the holder is a person of color or teaches in an area where there is a shortage of educators.

Currently, there are 12 ways to secure a Tier 2 license, which is good for two years and can be renewed three times. Tier 2 was created for teachers in residency or “grow your own” programs, who have experience teaching in other states and have completed a training program but couldn’t afford to pay for student teaching — a common roadblock for prospective teachers of color.

At least 20 percent of the 2,533 teachers now working with Tier 2 licenses are non-white (429 declined to state their race), as are 182 of the state’s 863 Tier 1 license holders.

Right now, Tier 2 license holders who teach for three years and receive good evaluations are automatically entitled to a Tier 3 license — essentially permanent permission to teach. The House bill would eliminate 10 of the 12 ways to get a Tier 2 license and the provision that allows successful teachers to move from Tier 2 to 3. A late amendment to the bill could preserve a very narrow path to a Tier 3 license for a small number of educators.

Chancey Anderson, co-founder of Prodeo Academy, one of Minnesota’s highest-performing charter schools, says 30 percent of her teachers have Tier 1 or 2 licenses, and a third are people of color. If the measure passes, she will lose several teachers whose students last year made more than 1.6 years worth of growth — before the pandemic-forced shutdown.

“This allows us to recruit the best teachers from around the country who want to come back to where they grew up,” says Anderson. “It seems crazy that with a shortage of teachers of color, we would be increasing roadblocks.”

Tonya Allen is director of mental health and family engagement for Intermediate District 287, which serves Twin Cities students with profound challenges that require particular teacher expertise. She told lawmakers the tiered system has been a godsend. “In the last year, our country has talked a lot about systemic racism,” she said. “However, when you consider the demographics of those who hold Tier 1 and Tier 2 licenses, I hope it is evident who will be disproportionately impacted by this change.”

For her part, Patters says she’s not worried about having a job if her path to a Tier 3 license is cut off. But, “I want to be a teacher of color in public schools,” she says. “These changes would push me out of public schools. Instead, I would teach in elite, private, college preparatory schools, where my background and experience are highly valued.”

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