Minneapolis teacher contract race language ignites firestorm

MINNEAPOLIS — When the teachers in Minneapolis arranged a 14-day strike in March, they celebrated a groundbreaking provision in their new contract that was intended to protect teachers of color from seniority-based layoffs and ensure that students from racial minorities have teachers who rely on them. appear.

Months later, conservative media has erupted with denunciations of the policy as racist and unconstitutional discrimination against white educators. A legal group is looking for teachers and taxpayers willing to sue to throw the language away. The teachers’ union portrays the dispute as a heated controversy when there is no immediate danger of someone losing their job. Meanwhile, the feud unfolds just months before arguments in a few US Supreme Court cases that could reform affirmative action.

“The same people who want to bring down teacher unions and blame seniority are now defending it for whites,” said Greta Callahan, president of the teacher unit for the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers. “This is all now being made up by the right wing. And we couldn’t be more proud of this language.”

Recent coverage in conservative platforms such as local news website Alpha News, Fox News nationally and the Daily Mail internationally have sparked criticism from prominent figures including Donald Trump Jr. and former Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who powers public workers unions in his state. Walker on Twitter called it “another example of why government unions should be eliminated”.

The contract language doesn’t specifically say that white teachers would be fired for teachers of color, though critics say it would be the effect. The contract exempts “teachers who are members of a population that is underrepresented among the district’s qualified teachers,” as well as alumni of historically black and Hispanic colleges and tribal colleges. About 60% of the district’s teachers are white, while more than 60% of the students are from racial minorities.

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Proponents say that students from racial minorities perform better when teachers and support staff of color are associated with their educators, and that this is especially critical in a district that suffers from persistent achievement gaps. Callahan said her union has fought for years to add the protections to their contracts, and she knows of two other Minnesota counties with similar amenities.

Minneapolis is one of the many districts in the US that is struggling with a declining teacher base and tight budgets. But Callahan disputed that the provision threatens one’s job, noting that Minneapolis has nearly 300 open job openings as teachers and students prepare to go back to school, and the language won’t take effect until 2023.

Callahan called it “just a small, small step toward justice” that doesn’t make up for the fact that many teachers of color left the district in recent years because they felt underpaid and disrespected.

For Lindsey West, a fifth grade teacher at Clara Barton Community School who identifies as black and indigenous, seniority language is part of a larger mission to improve education.

West said she strongly believes that students of color benefit from teachers who are like them, but said she has also seen that diversity can be empowering for white students. She said she was sometimes the first color teacher black or white students have had.

“We want kids from all demographics to have experiences with people from different backgrounds and different cultures, and to become aware that our shared humanity is important, not the things that divide us,” West said.

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Minneapolis Public Schools Interim Superintendent Rochelle Cox has turned down a request for an interview.

“The purpose of this provision is clearly to first fire white teachers, regardless of merit, based on their skin color, and that’s a major problem under the Constitution and the 14th Amendment,” said James Dickey, senior trial attorney with the Upper Midwest Law Center, a conservative nonprofit that often hires public unions. It has filed lawsuits over issues such as COVID-19 mask mandates and the display of Black Lives Matter posters.

Dickey said his group is considering filing a lawsuit and a stream of Minneapolis taxpayers — and some teachers — have contacted them to say they are “offended that my tax dollars could go to fund these kinds of racist agendas. “

He argued that a 1986 U.S. Supreme Court decision known as the Wygant case prohibits such provisions and would set a precedent in Minnesota.

The Wygant case involved a teacher contract in Jackson, Michigan, which took a different approach than the Minneapolis agreement. In effect, it said Jackson could not make budget cuts that led to an overall reduction in the percentage of minority workers employed in the district. White teachers filed a lawsuit after being fired, while some less-senior colored teachers kept their jobs. A divided Supreme Court ruled that the dismissals violated the equal protection clause of the U.S. Constitution.

Andrew Crook, spokesman for the American Federation of Teachers, said he was not aware of anything similar to Minneapolis’ wording in contracts in other states, although he said some contracts provide exceptions to seniority rules for teachers in hard-to-find places. fill specialties such as math and special education.

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Officials from other national civil servants’ unions and professional associations either said they did not know anything similar in their field or did not respond to requests for comment.

Two affirmative action cases heard in the Supreme Court in October involving Harvard University and the University of North Carolina could affect the Minneapolis dispute. The cases present challenges to the consideration of race in college admissions decisions.

Positive measures have been reviewed by the Supreme Court several times over the past 40 years and have been generally affirmed, but with limitations. However, with three new conservative judges on the court since the last review, the practice could face its biggest threat yet.

Joseph Daly, professor emeritus at the Mitchell Hamline School of Law who arbitrates disputes across the country, including many teacher cases over the years, said Minneapolis language seems designed to survive a lawsuit.

“The U.S. Supreme Court has historically approved affirmative action when very valid goals were to be achieved to ultimately seek equality for all people,” Daly said. “Today’s question is, will this concept be upheld by the courts in light of the more conservative stance on the Supreme Court? I have no answer for that.”

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