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We have a small window to do right by teachers of color

After 18 months of distance learning, Minneapolis Public Schools cannot afford to lose a single teacher of color who is supporting student academic growth.

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Since they were third graders, my children have attended Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS). Next fall, they will be high schoolers. They have never had a single classroom teacher of color. I’ll never forget the day my then-sixth grade son arrived home and excitedly shared, “I had a sub that looked like me, Mom. It was amazing!” That was one hour of one day of one school year.

I hope my kids will get the chance to have a teacher who shares their racial identity before their MPS career ends, but the current odds are low. MPS and the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers (MFT) have an opportunity to change those odds, but they have to get serious about improving the retention of teachers of color.

After 10 months of fruitless bargaining, this month MPS and the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers (MFT) began negotiating with a mediator, away from the public spotlight, to try to move their talks forward. One of the unresolved issues is a contract amendment to alter the layoff process and protect the retention of MPS teachers of color.

Right now, MPS has both many unfilled positions and budget challenges that suggest layoffs could become a reality as soon as next school year. How can we be both under- and overstaffed? Here’s how: In some subject areas, MPS has positions that they aren’t able to fill; in others, they are overstaffed because of declining enrollment.

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Since the beginning of the pandemic, Superintendent Ed Graff has prevented staff layoffs by using federal aid dollars. However, federal aid can only stave off layoffs temporarily, since enrollment continues to decline. We face consistent MPS budget challenges because the district operates as if it still serves 50,000 students.

While the likelihood of eventual layoffs concerns all staff, it is particularly worrisome for teachers of color, who are likely to be more recent hires now and in the future. Currently, teachers of color make up only 21% of the licensed teachers in MPS, compared to 66% of the student population. The district has stated its priority to hire more teachers of color.

However, like most teacher contracts, our district’s contract with the MFT includes a layoff process commonly known as Last In, First Out (LIFO), which would release the district’s newest hires first. Thus, LIFO is very likely to undermine the district’s efforts to increase the number of teachers of color in MPS.

Unfortunately, the window to agree to changes to LIFO creating protection for recently hired teachers of color is closing quickly. MPS and MFT must come to an agreement to protect teachers of color across the district from layoffs. Such an agreement altering the current LIFO process must be in place by the end of February, when schools submit next year’s budgets to the district’s central office. This timeline gives MPS and MFT only three months to come to an agreement in mediation.

Heather Anderson
Heather Anderson
During public negotiations, I saw layoff protections for teachers of color get pushed to the side for COVID-19 protocols and bargaining session scheduling issues. Protecting teachers of color felt more like a token and a bargaining chip than a priority. Now that the talks have gone into closed-door mediation, I worry that protecting and retaining teachers of color will become a missed opportunity.

For years, communities of color in Minneapolis have been demanding this change. We know it matters to our children. In 2019, I served on the MPS Achievement & Integration Advisory Committee. The data we saw were clear: MPS students performed significantly better when they could see themselves in their teachers.

After 18 months of distance learning, MPS cannot afford to lose a single teacher of color who is supporting student academic growth. Creating protections for teachers of color across the district will not solve all the recruitment and retention issues. However, it is a necessary step MPS and MFT can take to support our teachers of color and improve academic outcomes for students of color.

We do not have time for games. Both parties need to get serious about retaining and protecting teachers of color. Otherwise, my children, and thousands of other MPS students of color, may never see a teacher who looks like them.

Heather Anderson is the director of organizing for the Advancing Equity Coalition and the mother of two MPS eighth graders.