Last month Deborah Jane Clapp filed a lawsuit against Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS) claiming the new contract, which protects teachers of color from being laid off first when staffing cuts are made, discriminates against white teachers.
We don’t know Deborah Jane Clapp, who according to the lawsuit has been “a Minneapolis homeowner and resident since 2017.” She doesn’t return phone calls or do interviews. She appears to be a cypher for Judicial Watch, the right-wing, D.C.-based law group that represents her. Judicial Watch said Ms. Clapp, as a taxpayer, can challenge the district’s new layoff policy as an “unlawful expenditure of public money.”
Well, heck, we’re taxpayers too. And we’re invested in our community and public school system; between the three of us we have eight children, all of whom attend or have graduated from Minneapolis Public Schools. And unlike Ms. Clapp, we want MPS to please use our tax dollars to hire and retain more diverse teachers.
Because here’s the thing: Diversifying our teaching staff is good for all children. Eighty-two percent of MPS teachers are white; 75 percent are women. We’ve got nothing against white women per se. (Hello? All three of us are white women.) But our teaching staff doesn’t look at all like our students and families, 63% of whom are either Black, Latino, Asian, Native American or bi-racial. The gender differences are stark too: half of our students are boys and many don’t experience a male classroom teacher until they get to middle or high school.
The importance of teachers of color isn’t about optics; a large and growing body of research has demonstrated the measurable benefits for students when they have educators who mirror them. This data show when students of color have a teacher of shared ethnicity they perform better on standardized tests, have improved attendance and are removed from the classroom less frequently.
Sixty-three percent of MPS students identify as people of color, but only 18% of their teachers do, highlighting both the historical legacy of discrimination teachers of color face and the urgency of doing something different now.
The protections for teachers of color included in the most recent contract with MPS aren’t enough, but they’re a start. The contract states that during layoffs, “members of populations underrepresented among licensed teachers” can be exempt from the usual last-in-first-out seniority rules.”
Because of the legacy of white supremacy culture in everything from college admissions to district hiring practices, teachers of color are often the least tenured in their buildings; so they have usually been among the first to be laid-off because of long-standing “last in, first out” practices. During the big layoffs in the early 2000s, MPS lost 50% of its teachers of color, and earlier this year, nearly 50% of the teachers excessed during budget and staffing cuts were teachers of color. This new policy is a small step forward to ending these losses.
Ms. Clapp and her lawyers at Judicial Watch want the courts to declare any “racial and ethnic preference” provisions – and the use of taxpayer dollars to implement them – illegal. But we say, read the fine print. The provision is for “underrepresented” members of the profession, which, includes teachers who are men, LGBTQ, disabled and more. Diversity isn’t just about race.
But as long as we’re talking about race, here’s another reason why we, as white women, support this new policy. We need our beloved city to have strong, vibrant public schools. Academically, MPS does not work well for students of color; in fact, the so-called “achievement gap” (more appropriately termed educational debt) in MPS is among the highest in the U.S.
Black children, who make up 34% of our students are especially suffering, with less than 20% reading or doing math at grade level. Their parents have fought this to no avail and are leaving the district at three times the rate as white families. Devastating enrollment losses –15% in the last two years – have been driven by Black families who are moving their children out of MPS in search of a better education. Given the district’s results, who can blame them?
Would having a more diverse teaching staff help? All the available data says it would. As parents and taxpayers, we say, let’s make this happen.
Sara Spafford-Freeman, Colette MacIver and Lynnell Mickelsen are Minneapolis Public School parents who live in Linden Hills.