Teach for America faces hurdles in Minnesota

The governor cut $1.5 million for TFA in the Higher Education bill last month.

Janice Bitters

Jonathan Filzen successfully avoided living in the dorms when he attended the University of Minnesota, but he’s making up for that now.

Filzen is one of 43 recent college graduates from around the country settling into Comstock Hall on the University’s campus this week to train as Teach for America corps members.

Crystal Brakke, executive director for TFA’s Twin Cities region, said demand for TFA teachers in Minnesota is high, but the organization has had a few setbacks recently.

Last month, the Minnesota Board of Teaching denied a group variance waiver for TFA that would have allowed the organization to receive state permission for the members in Comstock to teach in Minnesota classrooms all at once before receiving their full teaching licenses.

Without the waiver, TFA will need to get individual permission for each member to teach in the state. Brakke said this would “put an additional level of work on every individual school” that hires a TFA member.

TFA will submit a revised request to the board for the group waiver later this month, and Brakke said she is confident the amended request will pass.

The Board of Teaching has granted the group waiver to TFA since 2009, when the organization first started operating in Minnesota.

Karen Balmer, executive director for the Minnesota Board of Teaching, said the decision to deny the waiver this year was because of questions board members had, including ones about attrition rates of teachers in the program and their placement in high-need schools.

Approval, she said, “will depend on whether board members will feel that they have had their questions answered and want to move forward.”

Balmer said she expects TFA’s revised request will be supplemented with more data than the original one.

The Board of Teaching isn’t the only group with concerns. Last month, Gov. Mark Dayton vetoed a $1.5 million allocation to TFA in the omnibus Higher Education bill.

Dayton said in a press release that the veto — his only line item veto of the bill — was because “no competitive grant program was established; no other applications were solicited; and no objective review was made by an independent panel of experts.”

The veto will not impact TFA’s current operations in Minnesota, Brakke said. The funds were intended to help the organization increase its members by about 50 teachers.

“That’s the difference, we won’t be able to bring in those 50 teachers, though we will be looking at other funding routes and sources,” she said.

Tom Dooher, president of Education Minnesota, a teachers union and advocacy group, said the additional funding would have been unnecessary because there’s a surplus of teachers in Minnesota.

Dooher is also concerned the five-week training program TFA offers for new members isn’t enough.

“We just want to make sure that anyone who becomes an educator in the state of Minnesota meets the high standards we have set for those who are going to teach,” Dooher said.

But Brakke said TFA’s goals are aligned with Education Minnesota’s, and demand for TFA teachers in the state has grown in recent years.

Minnesota TFA members, she said, are also enrolled in a two-year training program through Hamline University and paired with teaching mentors.

“I think sometimes it’s set up as we have opposing beliefs [as teacher unions], and I don’t think that’s true,” she said. “I think we all want the best thing for our students in Minnesota.”