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Layoff protections for teachers of color included in Minneapolis teacher contract

Minneapolis teachers contract sparks controversy online
Minneapolis teachers contract sparks controversy online 03:06

MINNEAPOLIS -- Minneapolis teachers' new contract with the school district includes language intended to protect teachers of color from layoffs if there are future staff reductions due to budget cuts.

The provision is part of the agreement reached between the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers and the Minneapolis Public Schools in late March, following a three-week strike where educators demanded higher pay, smaller class sizes and more mental health support for their students. About 76% of the union voted in favor of the new contract, ending the standoff.

The new language, effective next spring, adds an exception to a seniority-based system for staff reductions and layoffs for "teachers who are members of populations underrepresented among licensed teachers in the [d]istrict."

Other exemptions already existed, like for teachers trained in immersion, Montessori, and certain literacy programs.

The contract also provides mentorship support for teachers of color and creates an anti-racist council tasked with "reducing inequitable practices and behaviors in our learning places and spaces as well as supporting educators."

In Minnesota, 5.6% of licensed teachers identify as a teacher of color or American Indian compared to 30% of students, according to research on diversifying the teacher workforce put together for Minnesota districts.

Minneapolis is one of the most diverse districts in the state and like others, its educator workforce falls short of reflecting that. Research shows having teachers of color in the classroom has a positive impact on students, including improved test scores and higher graduation rates.

"The research literature is very clear: teachers of color have a positive impact not only on students of color but also on white students," said Dr. Katie Pekel, executive director of educational leadership at the University of Minnesota. "There's this idea of if you can see it, you can be it."

Union leaders said were happy with the contract, but added it didn't go far enough.

At a news conference before classes resumed in late March, Greta Callahan, president of the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers, highlighted the language as one of the victories in negotiations, in addition to smaller class sizes and pay raises.

"We have historic wins around supporting and retaining educators of color," she said.

Minneapolis Public Schools in a statement said it agreed to the contract with the union "to remedy continuing effects of past discrimination" and the language "aims to support the recruitment and retention of teachers from underrepresented groups as compared to the labor market and to the community served by the school district."

'Last in, first out' policies still linger, but contracts changing

In 2017, Minnesota legislature repealed a law that set a "last in, first out" seniority-based standard in the event there were staff reductions at a school or across a school district.

But Pekel said the policy persists in local teacher contracts in Minnesota. Teachers of color are more likely to have recently entered the profession and have less seniority, she said, so they may be more likely to get laid off if there are cuts.

Minneapolis Public Schools data show fewer teachers of color are tenured than white teachers. Teachers are in a probationary period until three consecutive years of work in one district, according to state law

In Minneapolis, the contract doesn't get rid of seniority, but the district and the union added a carve-out in the contract to protect teachers of color, citing "past discrimination by the district disproportionately impacted the hiring of underrepresented teachers in the District" that resulted in a lack of diversity of teachers.

It allows the district to protect "underrepresented populations" from layoffs, "outside of seniority order." The language is not race-specific and there are other exceptions.  

"Seventy percent of the teaching workforce looks like me – they're middle-class white women," Pekel said. "And so these efforts to diversify the educator workforce and have them mirror what our students look like in classrooms is why we're seeing policy changes and contract changes."

Adding "carve out" language, or providing some exceptions to last in, first out, is one of the suggestions Pekel and other researchers offer in a guidebook for diversifying the teacher workforce.

It highlights Osseo Public Schools, which provides their newly transitioned paraprofessional up to two years of seniority credit on the teacher contract as an acknowledgment of their time as paraprofessionals. This policy, the report said, "has more or less circumvented a significant aspect that disproportionately impacts teachers of color's seniority."

Under Robbinsdale's teacher contract, the district can retain a teacher with less seniority if laying off that person would "prevent students from having access to effective teachers who are members of populations underrepresented among the licensed teachers in the district or school and who reflect the diversity of enrolled students."

Former Minneapolis Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson praised the move by her former district to recruit and retain teachers of color. But, she said, these changes alone aren't the solution to getting more diverse educators in the classroom.

"There's no one silver bullet," she said. "So this is not the only strategy, but it's one of the ones that could be deployed so why not do it."

The language could lead to lawsuits citing the 14th Amendment, legal experts told the Minnesota Reformer. But it is difficult to predict outcomes of any hypothetical litigation.

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