Minneapolis teacher contract racial language sparks firestorm

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) – When Minneapolis teachers staged a 14-day strike in March, they celebrated a groundbreaking provision in their new contract meant to protect teachers of color from layoffs based on seniority and ensure that racial minority students have teachers who look like with them.

Months later, conservative media erupted with accusations of the policy as racist and unconstitutionally discriminatory against white teachers. A legal team is seeking to recruit teachers and taxpayers willing to sue to throw out the language. The teachers’ union portrays the dispute as one fought when there is no immediate risk of losing one’s job. Meanwhile, the controversy unfolds just months before arguments in a pair of U.S. Supreme Court cases that could reshape affirmative action.

“The same people who want to bust teacher unions and blame seniority are now championing it for white people,” said Greta Callahan, president of the teachers union at the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers. “This is all made up by the right wing now. And we couldn’t be more proud of this language.”

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

The contract language does not specifically say that white teachers will be fired before teachers of color, though critics say that would be the effect. The contract excludes “teachers who are members of populations that are underrepresented among licensed teachers in the District,” as well as graduates 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.

Advocates say racial minority students perform better when their educators include teachers and support staff of color, and that’s especially critical in a district plagued by stubborn achievement gaps. Callahan said her union fought for years to have the protections added to their contract and that she knows of two other Minnesota districts with similar provisions.

Minneapolis is one of many districts in the US struggling with declining teacher numbers and tight budgets. But Callahan disputed that the provision threatens anyone’s job, noting that Minneapolis has nearly 300 vacancies as teachers and students prepare to return to school, and the language would not take effect until the 2023 academic year.

Callahan called it “just one teenage, tiny step toward equality” that doesn’t begin to make up for the many teachers of color who have 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 Native American, the language of antiquity is part of a larger mission to improve education.

West said she feels strongly that students of color benefit from having teachers who look like them, but said she has also seen that diversity can empower white students. She said she was sometimes the first teacher of color black or white students had.

“We want to have kids from all demographics having experiences with people of different backgrounds and different cultures and realizing that our common humanity is what’s important and not what separates us,” West said.

Interim Minneapolis Public Schools Superintendent Rochelle Cox declined an interview request.

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

Dickey said his group is considering a lawsuit and has had a number of Minneapolis taxpayers — and some teachers — contact them to say they’re “offended that my tax dollars could go to fund this kind of racist agenda”.

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

The Wygant case involved a teachers’ contract in Jackson, Michigan, which took a different approach than the Minneapolis agreement. He essentially said that Jackson could not make cuts that resulted in an overall decrease in the percentage of minority staff employed in the district. White teachers sued after being fired, while some teachers of color with less seniority kept their jobs. A divided Supreme Court ruled that the firings violated the equal protection clause of the US Constitution.

Andrew Crook, a spokesman for the American Federation of Teachers, said he was not aware of anything similar to Minneapolis’ wording in contracts in other states, though he said some contracts provide exceptions to simple seniority rules for teachers in hard-to-fill majors like math and special education.

Officials from other national civil service unions and trade associations either said they were unaware of anything similar in their fields or did not respond to requests for comment.

Two affirmative action cases set for oral arguments before the Supreme Court in October, involving Harvard University and the University of North Carolina, could have an impact on the Minneapolis dispute. The cases pose challenges to considering race in college admissions decisions.

Affirmative action has been reviewed by the supreme court many times over the past 40 years and has generally been upheld, but with limits. With three new conservative judges on the court since its last review, however, the practice may be facing its biggest threat yet.

Joseph Daly, a professor emeritus at Mitchell Hamlin School of Law who has arbitrated disputes around the country, including many teacher cases over the years, said the Minneapolis language appears designed to survive a legal challenge.

“The U.S. Supreme Court has in the past taken affirmative action when there were very valid goals to be achieved in the ultimate pursuit of equality for all human beings,” Daly said. “Now the question today is: Will this idea be supported by the courts in light of the more conservative stance on the Supreme Court? I don’t have an answer to that.”

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