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A new Minneapolis teachers' contract is the center of a debate over diversity


A provision in a new teachers' contract in Minneapolis is now the center of a debate over diversity and seniority. The new contract has a clause designed to protect teachers of color from seniority-based layoffs. Teachers overwhelmingly approved the contract last spring, but conservative groups have filed a lawsuit saying the measure discriminates against white teachers. Elizabeth Shockman from member station Minnesota Public Radio reports.

ELIZABETH SHOCKMAN, BYLINE: When Minneapolis teachers ended a three-week strike, Minneapolis union leader Shaun Laden called their new agreement groundbreaking.

SHAUN LADEN: Our historic gains in this contract around addressing things like seniority-based layoff protection for teachers of color is going to be a nation-leading model.

SHOCKMAN: A provision in that contract upended decades of last-in, first-out employment practice by promising to protect teachers who are part of, quote, "underrepresented populations" if the district lays off teachers. The Minneapolis teacher force is predominantly white. Only 20% are people of color. The purpose of the provision is to retain those teachers who may have fewer years on the job. While the union calls it historic, conservative groups and media outlets have a different perspective. They've been blasting the provision, calling it a racist measure that discriminates against white teachers.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: The Minneapolis school district is facing backlash after a new union contract that would require white teachers be fired first regardless of seniority.

SHOCKMAN: This, in some ways, is a shift for conservative organizations, which often object to seniority protections in union contracts. Here's Dan DiSalvo, senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank.

DAN DISALVO: It restricts management rights, meaning it doesn't let principals make decisions about, you know, who best - is best to retain.

SHOCKMAN: But a new lawsuit filed by the conservative group Judicial Watch argues against the change being made to the district's seniority practice. It alleges the Minneapolis contract selects certain teachers for layoffs on the basis of race and violates the Minnesota Constitution's guarantee of equal protection under the law. In a statement, the Minneapolis teachers union says the effort by conservatives is an attempt to divert attention from the real crisis of fully staffing schools. Union president Greta Callahan says more than 75% of the mostly white union voted in favor of the contract.

GRETA CALLAHAN: We need to be supporting educators as they come in, especially those who are underrepresented that we know reflect our students. Having educators of color is what's best for our kids.

SHOCKMAN: Sixty percent of Minneapolis students are kids of color. And a considerable body of research shows teachers of color make a significant positive impact on academic achievement, behavior and graduation rates for students of color. There have long been disputes over seniority provisions in union contracts, and labor historian Peter Rachleff says that's a history that goes back to the 1930s. He commends the teachers union for the move it made.

PETER RACHLEFF: The action by the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers to try to prioritize keeping teachers of color at work and front and center is an extraordinary step and a step that can impact the way the system as a whole operates.

SHOCKMAN: It's a decision, though, that could be altered by legal arguments. Despite the controversy over changing seniority-based layoffs, union leader Callahan says much more needs to be done to increase the diversity of the district's teaching force. She says her union has long asked for more investment in mentoring programs and support for new teachers of color.

CALLAHAN: And I think that's, like, the biggest takeaway I want people to know about this.

SHOCKMAN: Meanwhile, students return to classes in Minneapolis in a matter of days, and layoffs are the last thing on administrators' minds. In fact, the district is still scrambling to hire staff for nearly 300 open positions. For NPR News, I'm Elizabeth Shockman in Minneapolis.

(SOUNDBITE OF ELHAE SONG, "KNOW") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Elizabeth Shockman
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