June 12, 2020

A Call to Action on Racial Justice for Minnesota Students

By Josh Crosson

In the wake of George Floyd’s murder, conversations on racial justice have moved front and center. Given Minnesota’s startling opportunity and achievement gaps, it is well beyond time to address systemic oppression in schools—and that starts with reimagining the policy foundations on which our pre-K-12 institutions are built.

Like policing, our education system must be redesigned with students and racial equity at the center.  It’s time to rethink how we design and deliver education so students of color and Native American students can thrive.

It will take time to transform a long-established system, but there is also a lot that legislators can act on now – breaking through the usual partisan gridlock to take meaningful steps during this summer’s special session. Racial justice in Minnesota schools is finally gaining attention from our state leaders: “If the issue is there’s not enough teachers of color, we’ve got an opportunity next week to author a piece of legislation,” Governor Walz said. “Pass it, and I’ll sign it.”

Here are issues we’re tackling to fight for racial justice in education during the special session sprint and beyond.

Dismantling the School-to-Prison Pipeline 

We must put an end to unfair and sometimes violent disciplinary practices that disproportionately impact students of color and push them into the criminal justice system. Minnesota’s history of disproportionately suspending and expelling students of color is extensively documented. Black students are eight times more likely to be suspended or expelled than their white peers, and Native American students are 10 times more likely—often for the same infractions.

To end these unjustifiable discipline practices, we urge legislators to:

  • End dismissals for our youngest learners

    To prevent 3- and 4-year-old students from entering the school-to-prison-pipeline, the Legislature must take every opportunity to ban the practice of suspending and expelling preschoolers. Our youngest learners are over three times more likely to be dismissed than K-12 students, and a disproportionate number are kids of color and Native American kids.

  • Reform exclusionary discipline practices at the K-12 level

    Minnesota must have stronger regulations around what happens before, during, and after student dismissals, along with clear data to make school pushout more transparent for parents and the larger community. For years, legislators have been working toward bipartisan compromise to ensure that exclusionary discipline in schools is rare, transparent, and followed by a restorative approach to support students’ long-term success. It’s time for policymakers to pass these commonsense changes into law.

  • Increase SRO regulation and accountability

    Districts must develop policies that address the role of school resource officers. Minneapolis Public Schools recently ended their contract with local police, responding to the call from students and families of color. Other districts must reconsider the role of police in schools, at minimum developing policies that address their role in schools, including actions prohibited for the officer, the proper use of crisis teams, and student removal procedures.

Self-Determination for Students & Families of Color

It is critical that we do far more to give students and families of color decision-making power in their education. From the type of school that will serve them best, to access to a wide range of rigorous and affirming programming, to clear, transparent data for well-informed decisions, choice is foundational to education justice. Like many institutions, our schools are not built around the assets and needs of students of color, and it’s time to put more power directly into their hands and the hands of their families.

To give power to students and families, legislators must:

  • Ensure high-quality school choice

    Every student deserves access to a school that helps them live up to their full potential—and this includes viable options for students who aren’t well-served by their zoned school. Efforts to shut down charter schools that are working for students of color and Native American students uphold a limited idea of how the education system can look. It puts legacy systems before the needs of those most impacted. All parents want what’s best for their kids and should have the power to choose the right school for their children from a range of high-quality options—and policymakers should stand up to defend what’s working, while ensuring all schools are held accountable to the families they serve.

  • Increase school transparency

    Giving families clear and accessible information on how schools are serving their students of color is critical. Families deserve access to straightforward information on school outcomes. The state already captures extensive data but makes much of it inaccessible and confusing—preventing parents from holding schools accountable and making informed school choices for their children.

  • Ensure access to rigorous coursework

    Every student should have access to high-level courses that prepare them for the college and career path of their choice. Even though many students of color excel, they’re often under-identified for gifted and honors programs, tracked into lower-level courses (based both on implicit bias and inequitable distribution of programming within and across districts), and faced with barriers to participation in programs like PSEO. It’s time to prioritize these options to ensure students of color leave high school ready to pursue whatever they choose to do next.

Increasing Teacher Diversity 

We must have a bold approach to recruit and retain teachers of color. Minnesota has spent over $60 million since 1991 to increase teacher diversity. And the needle has barely moved. In 2006, 3.5% of teachers identified as teachers of color; by 2018, this number had grown to only 4.3%. When students of color have teachers of color, research shows they’re more likely to be placed in gifted programs, graduate from high school on time, feel more cared for, and are less likely to be pushed out of school through exclusionary discipline.

Legislators should focus on these key areas:

  • Protect teachers of color during layoffs

    Minnesota schools must rethink layoff policies that push effective teachers and teachers of color out of the classroom.  “Last In, First Out” (LIFO) policies undermine efforts to diversify the teacher workforce by disproportionately removing newly trained and recruited indigenous and teachers of color from the classroom during layoffs. In 2017, the Minnesota legislature removed LIFO from statute as the default layoff policy, but Minnesota schools still uphold the practice. With a recession looming, it is critical to address this now before we lose the teachers of color our state desperately needs.

  • Preserve pathways to teacher licensure

    Educators of color would be disproportionately impacted by policies limiting pathways to permanent licensure. Excellent teachers can take many paths to the classroom. Our current tiered licensure system acknowledges this and gives school leaders flexibility to hire new teachers based on the many factors that can make an educator effective—and many teachers of color use these newly created pathways to the classroom as a result. Reverting to the old system could push out as many as 20% of Minnesota’s educators of color.

  • Teacher Recruitment

    Minnesota must make it a priority to invest in teacher preparation programs that drive the recruitment and retention of teachers of color. Currently, the Collaborative Urban and Greater Minnesota Educators of Color (CUGMEC) grant excludes alternative teacher preparation programs, which have higher concentrations of teachers of color and help fill shortage areas like career and technical education, STEM, and special education. While traditional and alternative teacher preparation programs differ in how they deliver content, all Minnesota teacher preparation programs must meet the same rigorous standards and go through the same approval processes so blocking alternative programs from funding traditional programs have access to has a greater impact on prospective teachers of color and the students they’re destined to serve.

Demanding Action 

The state and schools must work together to ensure we are holding systems accountable to the learning of kids of color. Overall, students who excel in their learning are less likely to enter the criminal justice system and break cycles of poverty. The state and schools must work together to ensure schools are more transparent in how they are educating our most underserved communities and continue to measure the learning and growth of kids of color.

Policymakers and educators must work to uproot racism from Minnesota’s education system, and while these policies just scratch the surface, they are tangible changes that legislators can advance today. Policymakers need to prioritize the needs of communities of color who are demanding reforms centered on their students—and it’s critical that they hear from you to ensure education policy isn’t left on the cutting room floor.

Throughout special session and beyond, we’ll keep you posted on opportunities to understand and act on emerging policy proposals, so stay tuned!