MINNEAPOLIS — When Minneapolis teachers staged a 14-day strike in March, they celebrated a groundbreaking provision in their new contract that was meant to protect teachers of color from seniority-based layoffs and ensure students from racial minorities have teachers who look like them.
Months later, conservative media erupted in denunciations of the policy as racist and unconstitutional discrimination against white educators. A legal group is looking to recruit teachers and taxpayers ready to sue to throw out the tongue. The teachers’ union portrays the dispute as a shattered controversy when there is no imminent danger of anyone losing their jobs. Meanwhile, the row is set months before arguments in two U.S. Supreme Court cases that could reshape affirmative action.
“The same people who want to dismantle teachers’ unions and blame seniority are now defending it for white people,” said Greta Callahan, president of the Minneapolis Teachers’ Federation teacher unit. “This is all made up by the right now. And we couldn’t be more proud of this language.
Recent coverage by conservative platforms such as the local news website Alpha News, Fox News nationally and the Daily Mail internationally has drawn criticism from prominent figures including Donald Trump Jr. and the former Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker who limited the power of public servants’ unions in his state. Walker on Twitter called him out “another example of why government unions should be eliminated.”
The language of the contract does not specifically say that white teachers would be fired before teachers of color, although critics say that is what the effect would be. The contract exempts “teachers who are members of underrepresented populations among licensed teachers in the district,” as well as alumni of historically black and Hispanic colleges and tribal colleges. About 60% of teachers in the district are white, while more than 60% of students are from racial minorities.
Advocates say racial minority students do better when their educators include teachers and support staff of color, and that’s especially critical in a district that suffers from stubborn achievement gaps. Callahan said her union had fought for years to have the protection added to her contract, and she knew of two other districts in Minnesota with similar provisions.
Minneapolis is one of many districts across the United States 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 won’t come into effect until from the 2023 school year.
Callahan called him “just a tiny step towards fairness” it doesn’t make up for the fact that many teachers of color 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 Indigenous, the language of seniority is one piece of a larger mission to improve education.
West said she believed that students of color benefited from having teachers who looked like them, but also found that diversity could be empowering for white students. She said she has sometimes been the first educator of color that black or white students have had.
“We want children from all demographics to have experiences with people from different backgrounds and cultures, and realize that our common humanity is what matters, not the things that divide us,” West says.
Minneapolis Public Schools Acting Superintendent Rochelle Cox declined a request for an interview.
“The purpose 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 deal under the Constitution and the 14th Amendment.” , said James Dickey, lead trial attorney at the Upper Midwest Law Center, a conservative nonprofit that often takes on public servant unions. He has sued over issues including COVID-19 mask mandates and Black Lives Matter poster displays.
Dickey said his group was considering suing and had a flood of Minneapolis taxpayers “and some teachers” contacting them to say they were “offended that my tax money could be used to fund this kind of racist agenda.”
He argued that a 1986 U.S. Supreme Court decision known as the Wygant case prohibited such provisions and would serve as precedent in Minnesota.
The Wygant case involved a teachers’ contract in Jackson, Michigan, which took a different approach from the Minneapolis agreement. He effectively said Jackson could not make cuts leading to an overall reduction in the percentage of minority staff employed in the district. White teachers sued after being fired while some teachers of color with less seniority retained their jobs. A divided Supreme Court ruled that the firings violated the Equal Protection Clause of the US Constitution.
Andrew Crook, spokesman for the American Federation of Teachers, said he was not aware of anything similar to Minneapolis language in contracts in other states, although he said some contracts provided exceptions to the rules of contract. direct seniority for teachers in hard-to-fill specialties. like math and special education.
Officials of other national civil servants’ unions and professional associations said they did not know anything similar in their fields or did not respond to requests for comment.
Two affirmative action cases set for oral argument before the Supreme Court in October, involving Harvard University and the University of North Carolina, could impact the Minneapolis dispute. The cases are challenges to the consideration of race in college admissions decisions.
Affirmative Action has been reviewed by the High Court on several occasions over the past 40 years and has generally been upheld, but with limitations. With three new conservative justices on the court since its last review, however, the practice could face its biggest threat yet.
Joseph Daly, a professor emeritus at the Mitchell Hamline School of Law who arbitrates disputes across the country, including numerous teacher cases over the years, said the Minneapolis language appears designed to survive a legal challenge.
“In the past, the Supreme Court of the United States has endorsed affirmative action when there were very worthwhile goals to achieve in ultimately seeking equality for all human beings,” Dally said. “Now the question today is: will this concept be upheld by the courts in light of the Supreme Court’s more conservative position? I don’t have an answer on that.