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A lot of Minnesota lawmakers agree on the need to recruit and retain teachers of color. There’s a lot less agreement on how much the state should spend on it.

It’s estimated that a third of Minnesota students are now children of color, and advocates say the lack of teacher diversity impacts outcomes and contributes to achievement gaps between students of color and their white classmates.

The state spending recommended in this year’s legislation is the minimum it would take to increase the portion of teachers of color from 4 percent statewide to 5 percent.
File photo by Johnny Crawford

A coalition calling for $80 million in new state funding for recruiting and retaining more teachers of color in Minnesota is disappointed in the the level of support lawmakers are offering this year to address the longstanding issue.

None of the initial budget proposals unveiled at the Capitol this session — in the DFL-controlled House, the GOP-controlled Senate or by Gov. Tim Walz — meets the lofty spending target supported by the Coalition for Increasing Teachers of Color and American Indian Teachers, a local group focused on “the lack of racial, cultural, and linguistic diversity” in Minnesota’s teaching ranks. The House DFL budget, HF 2400, gets closest, dedicating $37 million over the next two years to new and existing programs. Gov. Tim Walz included $16 million in his budget for 2020-21.

The Senate did not include any new funding for the programs outlined in SF 1012, the Senate version of the bill that includes the coalition’s priorities, the Increase Teachers of Color Act. The bill wasn’t heard in the Education Finance and Policy Committee. The Senate education spending bill, SF 7, however, provides the same level of funding for existing programs and increases spending on other initiatives that Sen. Carla Nelson, R-Rochester, chair of the committee, sees as related to the overall goal of increasing teacher diversity.

Nelson sponsored the 2017 bill that created new programs and expanded others to include teachers of color, which she’s cited to show that her support for addressing the shortage hasn’t wavered. But she also said she had constraints within the Senate’s proposed budget. “We need to have more teachers of color in our classrooms. I’ve continued to work on that,” she said. “Right now these are just positioning bills.”

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Paul Spies, a professor in the School of Urban Education at Metropolitan State University and head of the legislative action team with the coalition, was disappointed with the reception the Increase Teachers of Color Act had in the Senate this year. He said the coalition invited Nelson to sponsor it, banking on her past support.

“Even with a small target, we would have hoped there had been some increase in some of the programs that have been running to focus on teachers of color,” Spies said. “There’s demand for more funding. … We’ve just been investing small amounts of money in small programs. We have to bring them to scale.”

A way to address education gaps

The spending requested in the Increase Teachers of Color Act is the minimum it would take to increase the portion of teachers of color from 4 percent statewide to 5 percent, Spies said. That’s a net increase of about 630 teachers.

State Sen. Carla Nelson
State Sen. Carla Nelson
It seems like a small goal. But a report by the state Professional Educator Licensing Standards Board (PELSB) delivered to the Legislature in January says that statewide percentage hasn’t changed since at least 2015-16.

At the same time, the number of students of color in Minnesota continues to increase. It’s estimated that a third of Minnesota students are now children of color. Advocates say the lack of teacher diversity impacts outcomes for all students and contributes to the opportunity and achievement gaps between students of color and their white classmates.

Changes to Minnesota law passed in 2016 require school districts to evaluate their teacher pool with the goal of reflecting the diversity of their student bodies because of the impact it reportedly has on closing those gaps.

“One of things holding us back in our state that’s causing one of the nation’s’ worst achievement gaps is the fact that we have such an imbalance in who’s teaching and who’s learning,” Spies said. “It’s one of the things we haven’t tried over the last two decades. We haven’t systematically diversified our workforce.”

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The coalition supports recruiting teachers of color through a variety of means: Grants and scholarships to help people of color and Native Americans enroll in teacher preparation programs and complete student teaching requirements, pathways for school staff, such as paraprofessionals (called Grow Your Own programs), to get teaching licenses, and concurrent enrollment for high school students in teacher prep classes.

Some of these programs are already established, and the Increase Teachers of Color Act calls for spending enough to recruit the desired number of teachers over the next two years.

The same PELSB report says more than half of teachers with an active teaching license aren’t working as teachers. It’s not clear what that statistic is for teachers of color, but it’s a problem the state has to figure out how to tackle.

The bill also targets retainment through mentorship and loan forgiveness for teachers, as well as grants for schools to make comprehensive plans for diversifying their teaching staff. “Until the state really gets serious about this and doesn’t treat it like a small program but a major initiative that has to happen, we’re not going to meet the 2016 promise that they should have equitable access to effective and diverse teachers,” Spies said.

Bipartisan support, disagreement on funding

As the driving force behind the Increase Teachers of Color Act, the coalition has been able to unite education groups that seldom see eye to eye on other policies and ideas. That, Spies said, shows just how well opposing parties can agree on the need for more teachers of color.

Based on past and present co-authors on the bills, the goal of the Increase Teachers of Color Act enjoys bipartisan support. But when it comes to funding it, there’s plenty of disagreement. “We each were given a budget target that we must live within,” Nelson said. Hers was $206 million, and her spending bill prioritizes a small general education formula increase, safe schools aid, and early learning scholarships.

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The Senate did not include state or local tax increases, which the House DFL budget relies on to fund a hefty $900 million education budget proposal.

State Rep. Ryan Winkler
State Rep. Ryan Winkler
“We can’t have this for free,” House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler said during a press conference on the education budget. “If we want a world-class education system that provides opportunity for all kids, we have to pay for it … and we’re not shy about putting the price on the table that it costs to actually do these things.”

Concerns about negotiation results

Each of the three spending proposals treated the Increase Teachers of Color Act differently. The House spreads about $18 million a year across nearly all the new and existing programs the Increase Teachers of Color Act proposes, but it doesn’t put money toward a marketing campaign to recruit teachers and report on how the programs are performing.

Spies said he’s concerned about how the high House target will be treated as the session nears its end May 20. “We’re hoping that this becomes not some kind of super high bar that just gets whittled down through negotiations but actually people see it as all that could be done.“

The Senate includes base funding for Grow Your Own programs and three different teacher preparation grants. Outside the Increase Teachers of Color Act umbrella, Nelson also dedicates public dollars to an alternative teacher preparation program that Nelson called “a pipeline for teachers of color” and increased funding for the Sanneh Foundation, a youth development organization that has a program to recruit diverse teachers.

Nelson said the Senate’s choice not to include proposed changes to the state’s teacher licensure system also shows support for increasing teachers of color. The House education spending bill includes those changes, which would set limits on tier 1 and tier 2 licenses. Critics argue the changes would disproportionately impact teachers of color because about a quarter of teachers of color in Minnesota hold those licenses.

The Walz administration’s strategy was to propose large sums for a few programs, including a little more than $2 million for student teaching grants, which matches the allocation in the original bill. Education Commissioner Mary Cathryn Ricker said that aspect caught the administration’s attention because it’s a prominent roadblock for aspiring teachers.

“When we proposed $8 million [per year], it was the largest investment in diversifying the teaching profession ever,” Ricker told MinnPost, adding that future budget negotiations will focus on where and how much to invest. But the consensus to invest anything at all is already there. “I think getting the consensus there first invites the Senate to come to the table to find some common ground with us.”