In an article published Feb. 11 entitled “2020 session preview: Will the Minnesota Legislature get anything done this year?” the 2020 legislative session is framed in the following way: “With balanced budget in hand, with no crises to respond to, lawmakers have lots of things they would like to do on their agendas but very little that has to get done. And with the House and Senate still split between the DFL and the GOP and a critical election on the horizon in November, the session that convenes Tuesday could end with meager accomplishments.”
“Really, there are no must-dos,” House Speaker Melissa Hortman said of the two-year Legislature. “The state continues to function. There is no government shutdown threatened if the Legislature doesn’t get any bills to the governor’s desk.”
Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka echoed that basic concept. “This is not a budget year, so we really don’t need a supplemental spending bill.”
Although these statements are technically true, both the overall framing of the 2020 legislative session and the response by House and Senate leadership are problematic; they ignore the violence and racial disparities faced by indigenous communities and communities of color in Minnesota.
In what is considered a policy year at the Legislature, since the state’s two-year budget was set last session, there are many important policies that must be passed to address racial inequities. Furthermore, with the announcement in December of a state budget surplus of $1.3 billion, updated last week to $1.51 billion, advocates are pushing for some of the money to be used to help support indigenous communities and communities of color throughout the state. The following are just two of many coalitions and organizations working to reduce racial disparities in Minnesota.
The Coalition to Increase Teachers of Color and American Indian Teachers in Minnesota
For the past two decades, the percentage of teachers in Minnesota who are of color or American Indian (TOCAIT) has remained 4% while over the past decade the percentage of students of color and American Indian students has increased from 24% to 34%. In 2016, the Legislature amended several statutes asserting that all students shall have “equitable access to effective and diverse teachers who reflect the diversity of students in their schools.” However, since then, the Legislature has failed to pass the comprehensive Increase Teachers of Color Act for the governor’s signature in each of the past three sessions. Meanwhile, our state continues to have the worst opportunity and achievement gaps in the country in part because of the severe, persistent race gap between students and their teachers.
The Increase Teachers of Color Act is informed by extensive stakeholder input and endorsed by more than 50 state and community organizations. It had bipartisan authorship in both the House and Senate in 2019, but was only included by the House in its final omnibus bill and wasn’t even given a hearing in the Senate. So, once again, only a few policy proposals were passed with minimal extra funding (only $200,000 more than the previous biennium) for grant programs that fall approximately $8-10 million short of initial grant requests. Starting with establishing a state goal to increase the percentage of TOCAIT annually until all students have equitable access to effective and diverse teachers, systemic changes must be made this session through new and amended policies combined with additional, reasonable funding if there is a surplus. (Learn more about the coalition here.)
Minnesota is home to some of the nation’s most glaring education inequities and opportunity gaps. For example, Native American students in Minnesota are 10 times more likely to be suspended or expelled than their white peers. Black students in Minnesota are eight times more likely to be suspended or expelled than their white peers. And students with special needs represent nearly half of all suspensions and expulsions. To close our state’s ongoing achievement gaps, we need to tackle this issue head-on and find new approaches to stop the school to prison pipeline and keep kids in class where they can learn.
We also need to do more to ensure high-quality, diverse teachers in every classroom, and this means advancing multiple pathways to teaching. We need to make sure our systems for teacher training and licensure support the growth of all aspiring teachers, and avoid barriers that have for too long stood in the way through outdated, legacy systems.
We can also tackle lunch shaming this year, and there is no excuse not to. All students deserve to have a meal at school without shame or punishment. Proposed legislation would make sure students are never targeted for lunch debt by better defining shaming and holding schools accountable for harmful practices. (You can read more about EdAllies here.)
Additionally, there is legislation to end driver’s license suspensions for unpaid traffic tickets; advocacy needed for an ongoing annual Cost of Living Adjustment (COLA) for the Minnesota Family Investment Program (MFIP) cash grant; legislation to help tenants who struggle to pay their bills; legislation for voting rights restoration; Medical Interpretation legislation to help reduce health disparities; post-conviction relief legislation for people who have had wrongful convictions; unemployment insurance reform for people who have lost jobs unexpectedly; advocacy needed to build awareness of the Missing Murdered and Indigenous Women (MMIW) Task Force that was created during the 2019 legislative session; and advocacy needed to prevent immigrants and refugees from being deported without due process and human rights considerations, just to name a few.
So to say that the 2020 legislative session is a “legislative session with nothing on the must-do list” is to neglect the reality that Minnesota has some of the worst racial and economic disparities in the nation. To say that “… there are no crises to respond to …” is deeply hurtful to communities of color and indigenous communities who live with the constant threat of violence and racial oppression. Until racial inequity is no longer the case in Minnesota, there is plenty of work to do — every legislative session.
Brett Grant is the research and policy director at Voices for Racial Justice. Paul Spies is a professor of education at Metropolitan State University. Josh Crosson is the senior policy director at EdAllies.
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