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Minneapolis Public Schools defends policy to prioritize retaining educators of color when determining layoffs

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(MINNEAPOLIS) -- Ahead of the new school year, Minneapolis Public Schools has defended its agreement reached with the teacher's union this spring to prioritize retaining educators of underrepresented backgrounds when determining layoffs.

Effective in the spring of 2023, the contract provision states that teachers who are members of "populations underrepresented among licensed teachers in the district" may be exempt from district-wide layoffs outside of seniority order, deviating from the traditional "last-in, first-out" system.

The stipulation is a part of a recent collective bargaining agreement between the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers (MFT) and MPS, which concluded a weekslong teachers' strike in March.

"To remedy the continuing effects of past discrimination, Minneapolis Public Schools and the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers (MFT) mutually agreed to contract language that aims to support the recruitment and retention of teachers from underrepresented groups as compared to the labor market and to the community served by the school district," a spokesperson for Minneapolis Public Schools said in a statement to ABC News Wednesday.

The policy comes as efforts to diversify teachers in Minnesota are ramping up in the state legislature with the introduction of HF3079, the 2022 Increase Teachers of Color Act.

The legislation seeks to "increase the percentage of teachers of color and American Indian teachers in Minnesota" to ensure that "all students have equitable access to effective and racially and ethnically diverse teachers who reflect the diversity of students," according to the text of the bill.

However, as news of the MPS policy has made national headlines in recent days, critics say the policy's attempts to rectify past discrimination could constitute discrimination itself -- potentially even a violation of the 14th Amendment.

James Dickey, an attorney in Minneapolis, told ABC News that his firm has recently received a "flood of emails" from taxpayers and teachers in Minneapolis who are opposed to the policy and have reached out regarding potential legal actions.

Dickey is senior legal counsel at the Upper Midwest Law Center, a nonprofit public interest law firm in Minnesota, and said that his firm could be "prepared to go forward with litigation" soon.

When asked about efforts to diversify the teaching staff in Minnesota public schools, Dickey acknowledged the concern but said that addressing the issue instead requires reforming the seniority system, suggesting that layoffs should be based on merit, not seniority or race.

"Teachers are not being evaluated based on merit, they're being evaluated based on, you know, first in first and last out. And I think that's the bigger problem," he said.

Responding to criticism, MFT has doubled down on its support of the policy, citing the need for educators to reflect the diversity of their schools' student bodies. While 65% of the students attending MPS in the 2021-22 school year were people of color, only around 30% of the teaching staff were, the district reported.

"No matter where they live in Minneapolis, or what they look like, every student in the Minneapolis Public Schools deserves great teachers and education support professionals who challenge, support and educate all their students in a safe and stable learning environment," the union wrote in a statement to ABC News.

The union wrote that it wanted to create a "transparent, legal, ethical process" to retain the "unique skills and experiences" of educators of color and those of other underrepresented backgrounds in the case of budget cuts and layoffs.

MFT described the agreement as a small step toward dismantling discriminatory systems in education but noted that diversifying educators will be a long haul given the nationwide teacher shortage. There are currently more than 370 open jobs for teachers in MPS, the union said.

Tra Carter, a former behavioral specialist at Clara Barton Community School in south Minneapolis, said he believes MPS could do even more to support teachers of color. Carter, who was laid off last year during the strike, said that at the time, he was the only Black male educator employed at his school.

"Black and brown educators of color are losing their jobs exponentially faster than their white counterparts, so I'm happy again that something got done," Carter said.

"But I don't think that it's ever going to be enough," he added. "I think one of the first steps that the district needs to do is to begin hiring more educators of color and helping those educators that are already in the schools who don't have those teaching licenses or who don't have those degrees, helping those educators so that they can then be in that community."

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