Minneapolis schools facing potential lawsuit over teacher retention policy

A Twin Cities attorney says a new Minneapolis Public Schools policy is in violation of the 14th amendment of the US Constitution, and he is willing to take the issue to court if the policy is not reversed.

The policy states that when there are layoffs, "under-represented" teachers should be skipped over for someone who is not in the "under-represented" category, despite seniority. A spokesperson for Minneapolis Public Schools says the policy is "to remedy the continuing effects of past discrimination" and "aims to support the recruitment and retention of teachers from underrepresented groups."

"There’s no question that diversity among teachers is a very worthy goal. We have no objection to that whatsoever," said James Dickey of the conservative non-profit law firm Upper Midwest Law Center. "The problem is you’re not talking about increasing diversity by race-neutral means."

High School English teacher Nafeesah Muhammad was one of several teachers who fought for this policy to be included in the new contract. She says while more can be done to support students of color and recruit minority teachers, this is a positive step.

"This contract language is a small step to restoring the balance," said Muhammad. "When integration happened, it took the black students and students of color and left the black teachers."

Dickey cites a 1986 Supreme Court decision that struck down a similar effort by a Michigan school board. Wygant v Jackson Board of Education concluded that a layoff provision in that contract violated the Equal Protection Clause.

"It’s clearly designed to be a race-based classification and the district and the union are probably hoping the language they’re using would slide past the courts, but it's not going to work," said Dickey.

Muhammad says the new retention policy is less about the teachers and more about the students.

"The role model effect shows that just by having one teacher that looks like you and speaks the same language as you, has a dramatic effect on your educational experiences," she said.

In a statement, the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers said in part, "As in nearly all Minnesota school districts, our teaching staff is overwhelmingly white. Unlike many Minnesota schools, our student body is about two-thirds students of color. Increasing the racial diversity of the teaching staff benefits all our students. District administrators recognized this fact and union members and the Minneapolis Board of Education agreed to new contract language retaining underrepresented groups in May."

Dickey says he’s heard from several Minneapolis teachers and taxpayers upset over the new policy, however, he has not identified a plaintiff or started the process of filing suit.