Roberta Hernandez Rasmussen, a Roseville teacher, reads students a picture book about Cesar Chavez during Read Across America Day in 2017. Minnesota's shortage of teachers of color has long resulted in a mismatch between student and teacher demographics. This year, lawmakers and advocates hope to change that. Credit: Evan Frost | MPR News 2017

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Minnesota’s legislature is divided on many issues, but members seem to agree on at least one big thing: This is the year to address the state’s dire shortage of teachers of color.

Support for tackling the problem comes from both houses of the legislature and both parties. Senator Jim Abeler (R-Anoka), the chief Senate author of the proposed Increase Teachers of Color Act, said at a February news conference that the bill presents “a chance to give everybody the freedom to be all they can be.” Representative Hodan Hassan (DFL-Minneapolis), chief House author of the bill, said it would “improve outcomes for every student.” Representative Heather Keeler (DFL-Moorhead), a member of the Yankton Sioux tribe, has authored a companion bill to ease the costs of teacher preparation programs for candidates of color. 

And Senator Roger Chamberlain (R-Lino Lakes), who chairs the Senate’s Education Finance and Policy Committee, told Sahan Journal that diversifying the state’s educator workforce was “common sense.”

As Minnesota’s student population has grown increasingly diverse—more than a third of all Minnesota schoolchildren are now students of color—the percentage of teachers of color has remained stagnant at around 5 percent for more than a decade, creating a widening gap. Minnesota is out of step with national trends, too: Nationally, 20 percent of teachers are people of color.

The Increase Teachers of Color Act has been proposed in the Minnesota legislature every year since 2017. Over the years, both Republicans and Democrats have championed the bill, though not at the same time. But this year, for the first time, the bill received a hearing in both the Republican-controlled Senate and the DFL-led House. Advocates are optimistic that with increased bipartisan support, and heightened urgency following the police killing of George Floyd, this could be the year Minnesota takes meaningful action to develop a teacher workforce that looks more like its students. Still, some significant areas of disagreement remain.

The bills, which propose $46 million in new spending for K-12 education and $35 million for higher education, have passed through committees, but still have a long way to go before they become law. Much of that process–compiling the final House and Senate education bills and hashing out agreements in conference committees–happens behind closed doors. 

Chamberlain will have a major role in that process, and in an interview, he expressed optimism that this is the year something would happen.

Getting teachers of color in classrooms, fast

“We will have something in our final omnibus bill that will greatly increase the funding and process to get teachers of colors in the classrooms,” he said. “There is no doubt about that.”

As committee chair, Chamberlain is tasked with compiling the Republican-controlled Senate’s omnibus education bill. Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka will give him a total spending target for education; then Chamberlain will put together some of the bills heard before his committee into an overarching education package. He’ll unveil his final education bill sometime in early April.

One of the most exciting proposals to increase teachers of color, in Chamberlain’s view, is a $750,000 grant appropriation, authored by Senator Mark Koran (R-North Branch), to the nonprofit Black Men Teach to recruit, train, and place 30 to 50 Black male teachers in eight Twin Cities public and charter elementary schools. After six years, the nonprofit’s leaders hope Black male teachers will comprise 20 percent of the teacher workforce in those schools.

Other efforts like an expansion of grow-your-own programs could produce similar or better results, Chamberlain said. Expanding grow-your-own programs, a line item in both ITCA and Governor Tim Walz’s education budget, allow districts to provide pathways for diverse non-licensed school staff to earn a teaching license.

Chamberlain also likes the plan in the pending legislation for a marketing campaign and bonuses for out-of-state teachers of color who move to Minnesota for a teaching job, he told Sahan Journal. This would address some short-term supply constraints. Right now, 85 percent of teacher candidates at Minnesota universities are white.

“Our goal is to have the maximum number of qualified teachers of colors in classrooms in the shortest period of time in the most effective and efficient way,” he said.

Markus Flynn, a teacher at Prodeo Academy and the executive director of Black Men Teach, instructed a remote fifth grade science class in December 2020. Credit: Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News 2020

But disagreements remain on retention

Retention is another piece of the puzzle. Yelena Bailey, the director of education policy for the Minnesota Professional Educators Licensing and Standards Board, told the House Education Policy committee in January that a key reason the number of teachers of color has remained flat is that any hiring gains are offset by retention problems.

The Increase Teachers of Color Act addresses retention issues with improvements to climate on campus, by requiring cultural competency as part of principals’ evaluations, making ethnic studies coursework available to all students, and preventing discipline against teachers who use diverse curriculum materials. 

Sandy Saucedo-Falagan, a co-chair of the Coalition to Increase Teachers of Color and American Indian Teachers in Minnesota, said in a February press conference that the legislature’s previous efforts to increase funding for teachers of color were like a farmer attempting to irrigate a large field with a garden hose.

“We also know that the soil and environment matter for crops to grow,” she said. “If we do not address the problems with systemic racism in education, including climate and curriculum in our schools, and teacher prep programs that alienate so many students of color and teachers of color, we will find it hard to recruit and retain people of color in teaching.”

Chamberlain said he’d need to take another look at those components of the bill. He’s not opposed to adding coursework to teach parts of history that have been neglected, he said, as long as other traditionally studied historical events aren’t left out. However, he’s pushing for a two-year delay for any new educational standards so schools can focus on recovering from the COVID-induced shutdowns.

But his priorities for retention are providing mentorship for teachers of color and eliminating seniority as a factor in teacher layoff decisions.

The last-in, first-out—or LIFO—layoff policy, which protects senior teachers and leaves newer educators more vulnerable to losing their jobs, has long been a lightning rod of debate in the Minnesota legislature, and historically a priority for Education Minnesota, the state’s largest educators union. LIFO was the mandatory teacher layoff policy under state law until 2017, unless districts had negotiated an exception. Now district union contracts, rather than state law, determine layoffs. But in many districts, LIFO is still the default policy. 

The policy came under fresh scrutiny after Burnsville educator Qorsho Hassan won the 2020 Minnesota Teacher of the Year award in August, shortly after losing her job due to LIFO. A Sahan Journal analysis showed that since newer teachers are more diverse, the policy disproportionately pushes out educators of color.

In his conversations with teachers of color, Chamberlain told Sahan Journal, LIFO has come up repeatedly as an obstacle to retention. He supports Senator Julia Coleman (R-Chanhassen)’s bill to eliminate seniority as a criterion in teacher layoffs altogether.

Kendra Caduff, president of the Farmington Education Association, said in a February Senate Education Finance and Policy committee hearing that seniority provides important job protections to teachers, including Indigenous teachers and teachers of color.

“Often we hear that a main problem is that they’re not able to teach from their own cultural perspective. Seniority protects that,” Caduff said.

In the DFL-controlled House, Hodan introduced a different proposal to address LIFO’s disparate impacts on teachers of color.

In Burnsville, Qorsho’s union local had negotiated a provision to protect teachers of color by adding them to the district’s staffing retention priorities. But district leadership told Sahan Journal they determined prioritizing teachers in the employment process based on race could run afoul of state and federal law. Hodan’s bill attempts to address that loophole and protect teachers of color in the layoff process.

Chamberlain dismissed Hodan’s bill, describing it as an attempt to “straddle the fence and protect teachers unions.”

The legislature can improve retention by addressing mentorship and LIFO, he said. “I’m fully confident that schools and districts are sensitive to these issues, and will do and want to do the best they can to retain as many teachers of color, quality teachers, as possible,” he said. “If not, the communities will hold them accountable, other educators will hold them accountable, unions will hold them accountable, so I think that will work itself out.”

A crossroads

Despite some partisan differences about the details, the bill’s authors are feeling hopeful.

When the Increase Teachers of Color Act was first introduced in 2017, Senator Carla Nelson (R-Rochester) was its chief author, and the bill didn’t receive a hearing in the Democratic-controlled House, said Paul Spies, co-founder of the Coalition to Increase Teachers of Color and American Indian Teachers in Minnesota. That year, many of the bill’s provisions passed into law with bipartisan support and a modest level of financing through the omnibus education bill.* Since then, proposals to expand on those successes hadn’t been heard in the Republican-led Senate.

This year, the bill has bipartisan support, and there is movement in both chambers.

“I think we are at a crossroads with everything that has happened in the last year, the death of George Floyd as well as the civil unrest,” Hodan said. “If this is not the year that we make change, I don’t think there will be another year that we will have this opportunity.”

*This story has been updated to clarify that a number of provisions of the 2017 legislation became law.

Becky Z. Dernbach

Becky Z. Dernbach is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.