Minnesota educators, legislators, and students took turns at an unusual October legislative hearing, schooling the Higher Learning Commission’s top official on the “crippling effect” of a new HLC requirement for high school faculty teaching college-level classes to get master’s degrees.

“The key to the Minnesota model for concurrent enrollment or dual credit programs is that they depend on high school teachers voluntarily taking on additional teaching duties for no compensation,” Tom Bacig said in emotional testimony during a four-hour meeting of the Joint House and Senate Higher Education Committees.

“Not a penny of salary. None,” said Bacig, a University of Minnesota-Duluth professor in the program for 27 years.

HLC president Barbara Gellman-Danley bent, but she didn’t break on implementing the controversial accreditation rule in September 2017.

“Not to disappoint you, but we do not have the authority, as staff individuals, to walk out of here and change a policy,” Gellman-Danley told the legislators and crowd. “Not that I’m suggesting we should. But I will tell you, we are here to hear what you have to say and share that information.”

The largest of seven U.S. college accreditation organizations, HLC ensures instructional quality control by accrediting colleges and universities in 19 states, including Minnesota.

Nearly 25,000 Minnesota high school students earned more than 200,000 college credits in the dual enrollment courses in 2014, saving their families nearly $39 million in college tuition. Some 2,000 high school teachers trained by the University of Minnesota and state university system participate in the College in the Schools program.

“These teachers are not professors, they are not asked to teach our entire curriculum,” said Timothy Johnson, University of Minnesota distinguished professor of political science and law and longtime director of the department’s CIS program.

“We’re asking them to teach one class, to teach it very well, and to do it both substantively, and pedagogically, to the highest level possible.”

The Minnesota Legislature has appropriated $8.6 million to fund the popular dual enrollment option. It’s not clear how many Minnesota high school teachers fail to meet the standard. But a Minnesota Association of School Administrators survey found that just 33 of 193 high school teachers in 31 rural districts would qualify.

“I’m concerned that your ruling does not take into account Minnesota’s history of success, nor the stringent requirements that Minnesota has placed on its high school teachers teaching concurrent enrollment already,” said Sen. Carla Nelson, R-Rochester.

Yet HLC maintains that 62 percent of high school teachers in the program nationwide already meet the requirement. Gellman-Danley put the onus on Minnesota colleges’ and universities’ apparent failure to flag the issue with high schools, leading up to the June decision to codify a long-standing expectation.

“We wrote everybody in higher education, give us the input in the states, and we got the input,” Gellman-Danley told legislators. “And it’s OK, but your communication was, let’s say, louder after that implementation period, after it had been passed.”

Some participants suggested an exemption for Minnesota’s teacher training programs, similar to teaching assistants at the college level. If not, teachers and students from around the state warned of a disproportionate impact on rural schools.

“Presently, Windom Area high school students are able to graduate with up to 43 college credits, which are currently being offered through seven of our faculty members,” said Aniessa Sebring, a Windom Area High School math teacher without a master’s degree. “If this proposal is upheld, it will allow our school to only offer eight college credits, and only one of our staff members would be able to teach classes.”

“I will graduate this spring with 31 college credits,” said Natalie Resch, a Windom Area High School senior. “This will save my family approximately $15,000 just for my education.”

One critic raised the specter of a congressional investigation. Yet a Twin Cities legislator warned his colleagues against piling on the HLC.

“Whether we like it or not, no matter what we pass, they [HLC] can do whatever they want,” said Rep. Jason Isaacson, DFL-Little Canada. “They don’t have to listen to us. So having an adversarial relationship with them does us no good.”

While holding firm on the 2017 deadline, HLC will work with colleges and universities rather than revoke accreditation. Gellman-Danley said the review process gives high schools and their higher education partners, effectively, twice as long to adapt.

“We’re not asking everybody to say this is four years out, but that’s a practical reality,” Gellman-Danley said. “It can be four years out.”

Originally published in Watchdog.org.