Bipartisan bill to build Minnesota’s ranks of teachers of color sputtered

Minnesota is increasing spending to hire and retain teachers of color as the state struggles to close a persistent achievement gap between whites and students of color.

Gov. Tim Walz, a former schoolteacher, and legislators recently increased funding for the effort in the coming years, to $3.1 million more for various programs. But that represents an increase of only $299,000 from total investments of the last two years.

Advocates — who were seeking $80 million overall — said they were disappointed that lawmakers did not invest more to create a diverse teaching force. They said some of the additional funding approved will help retain minority teachers, but ultimately it is not enough to increase the percentage of teachers of color overall.

“We’re struggling just to move the needle one percent a year,” said Paul Spies, legislative action team lead for the Coalition to Increase Teachers of Color and American Indian Teachers in Minnesota. “The Legislature refuses to appropriate the money and make the policy amendments needed for systemic change.”

For decades, Minnesota schools have been wrestling with a widening racial gap between teachers and students. About 34% of K-12 students are nonwhite, while minority teachers make up only 5% of full- and part-time teachers, according to a recent Star Tribune analysis. The coalition is pushing to boost the number of minority teachers to 8% by 2020.

A growing body of education research shows that increasing the number of teachers of color can help narrow the achievement gap between students of color and their white peers. Teachers who reflect the students’ racial background are critical to keeping students engaged, in class and successful, researchers say.

Advocates lobbied the Legislature this year to fund a range of existing and new programs, such as student-teacher grants, scholarships for aspiring teachers, teacher-retention funds, expanded pathways to teaching careers and bonuses to entice out-of-state teachers of color to work in Minnesota.

Rep. Jim Davnie, DFL-Minneapolis, co-author of the bill, said less than half of the $3 million from the $543 million in education spending went to the effort to boost the number of teachers of color. Lawmakers said there was too little money to go around and that some parts of the legislative proposals did not rise to the same level of importance as other major education expenses: the per-pupil funding formula, growing funding deficits for special education, prekindergarten programs and funding for students attending Bureau of Indian Education schools.

“We had to look at which elements within this whole comprehensive package we could afford at this time,” said Rep. Mary Kunesh-Podein, DFL-New Brighton, the chief author of the House bill.

In the end, a new program focused on retaining teachers of color — who are already in the pipeline through mentoring, training and fostering racial-affinity groups — was awarded $1.5 million for the next two years.

Two other existing programs also received additional funding: the student-teacher candidate grants got $750,000 a year; and another competitive grant for teacher prep institutions geared toward recruiting candidates of color got a one-time appropriation of $99,000.

Sen. Carla Nelson, R-Rochester, chairwoman of the Education Finance and Policy Committee, was the chief author of a bill advancing many of the coalition’s goals in 2017. She said she declined an invitation to author the bill this year in part because the coalition’s request was too hefty.

The bill also did not get a hearing in the Senate, but Nelson said she’s happy to see the continuation of programs that try to bridge the teacher-student racial gap.

“We see the impact of the shortage of teachers of color in our communities,” said Violeta Hernández Espinosa, education legislative director with the Minnesota Council on Latino Affairs. “This issue was the Latino community’s number one priority in education, and it’s sad to know that we won’t make any changes again.”

Meanwhile, teachers of color in Minneapolis and other school districts have formed racial-affinity groups as an “informal” way to mentor and support one another, talk about difficulties and find ways to recruit and retain more minority teachers.

Roberta Hernandez, a teacher at Roseville Area’s Central Park Elementary, and Verna Wong, an English-language teacher at Champlin Park High, have been leading those efforts in their school districts for many years in part as a coping mechanism for the isolation they felt as one of the few minority teachers in their schools. Hernandez, who moved from Illinois in 2006, has been lobbying lawmakers and recently testified on behalf of the coalition’s bill. The mentoring and retention money, she said, will run out quickly because there’s a growing need to keep teachers of color in the profession.

“It’s just very small and it so disappointing,” Hernandez said. “If they can’t keep us, I don’t think that school system has what it needs to really foster and nurture students of color to feel like this is their place either.”

Wong and other teachers in the Anoka-Hennepin School District are pushing for accountability and transparency in “grow your own” programs that help nonlicensed staff become teachers. Teachers there said the majority of this year’s cohort participants were white. At a recent school board meeting, district leaders promised they will do better next time to recruit more minority teachers into the program, Wong said.

“The truth is that districts are often very disconnected from the teachers who are working at the ground level,” she said. “We would like to see more accountability on how that money is allocated and how it is truly benefiting the teachers and communities who are underrepresented in our profession.”

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