There are two things Americans do when they feel their rights are being violated. They either sue for a redress of their grievances, or they show up ala Daniel Shays with lit torches and demands for justice.

Given the indefensible results of public schools, both methods could be appropriate.

Four Minnesota parents who believe their children are being robbed of effective schools by laws that saddle them with the lowest quality teachers, and thus, the lowest quality instruction, are taking their Governor to court.

The parents are Tiffini Forslund, Justina Person, Bonnie Dominguez, and Roxanne Draughn.  Their children are black, white, and Native American. All qualify for free and reduced priced lunch.

And all, their lawsuit says, are assigned to – or at-risk of being assigned to – an ineffective teacher due to Minnesota’s archaic teacher tenure laws. The parents’ lawyers argue the state’s tenure system values a teacher’s right to lifetime employment more that the state’s constitutional guarantee of a “uniform and thorough” education for children.

Forslund says her child had an amazing teacher in 5th grade who made a big difference, but that teacher was laid off due to so-called “last-in, first-out” (LIFO) policies that don’t take into account a teacher’s talent or results. This drove Forslund to write letters on the teacher’s behalf, singing her praises to the school board, the media, and anyone who would listen.

The response was lame. No one cared. Why?

Whether people admit it or not, teachers’ unions are a powerful lobby representing individuals who demonstrate an equally powerful love for children every day in classrooms, but also a powerful disregard in the state capital for policies aimed at protecting a child’s right to effective teaching.

If you fight for greater funding, smaller class sizes, more welfare resources, fewer tests, less accountability, or more school personnel, you will find yourself with a small army of lobbyists willing to say your name.

Fight for better teachers and your name is mud.

That’s unfortunate because everyone should agree that unless you’re fighting for better teachers, especially for poor kids, you aren’t fighting for justice.

There is no part of the public school experience that is more hidden from view of parents than the quality of the teacher in their child’s classroom.

Yet, research gives us two reasons to consider that important: 1) the quality and effectiveness of a teacher is said to be the top contributor to student achievement, and 2) we know that students of color, and the poor, are most likely to get the lowest quality teachers.

Put the two things together and you have a recipe for systemic injustice. Generations of students – those who need the biggest leg up in life – are shortchanged.

Linda Darling-Hammond, a leading scholar in the field of education, has said teachers with strong academic backgrounds, preparation, 3+ years of experience, and “mastery” of the skills measured by the National Board of Teaching, are bigger predictors of student achievement than race and parent education combined.

Effective teachers matter. More so when students are poor or segregated by race.

But teachers meeting that criteria aren’t the ones usually found in schools where parents like Forslund, et al. enroll their students.

In Minnesota, the problem is bewildering because we are a national model for what can go right in a state. Minneapolis has been heralded as something of a progressive miracle (it’s not). We are routinely profiled as a best place to live.

We are damn good.

If you’re white and educated.

It’s not about teachers, it’s about money

The usual refrain about resource inequities is less useful here. Our poor schools get more money per student than our rich ones.

For instance, comparing the budget allocations for two Minneapolis high schools, one in the economically under-resourced North side of the city, the other in the affluent portion of the South side, reveals an eye popping difference in funding.

North High, among our poorest schools in the city, receives budget allocations that amount to $17,460 per student.

Southwest High, our most sought after school ranked among the best in the nation, gets $7,782 per student.

There is one area where the money is clearly in favor of whiter, wealthier schools. My colleague Beth Hawkins examined this in a story for MinnPost two years ago.

Here’s her example:

Among mainline programs, Lake Harriet’s lower campus boasts the highest median teacher salary, at $80,355, not including benefits. Located a few blocks from its namesake landmark, the program is a popular option with wealthy southwest Minneapolis families who compete for admission.

Some 85 percent of its K-3 students are white. Fewer than 8 percent of the school’s students qualify for free or reduced price lunch. That poverty level is so low that the school does not qualify for federal Title I funds, the main pot of money that is supposed to offset the challenges of educating poor children.

A few miles to the north, Bethune Community School has a student body that is entirely impoverished and the lowest median teacher salary in the district, at $49,449. One fourth of its K-8 students receive special education services and a third are homeless or lack stable housing.

And because 94 percent of Bethune’s students are minorities, nearly a third more than the district as a whole, it’s considered racially identifiable — the state’s legal definition of a segregated school. A little further to the north at Lucy Laney, also racially identifiable, the median teacher is slightly higher at $51,510.

The net result is that students in the wealthier schools have more expensive, experienced teachers than students with greater needs in poorer schools.

That problem is the result of years where teachers routinely started their careers in poorer schools, then used seniority as a visa to bid into whiter and wealthier schools over time. Older, more experienced teachers clustered in the tony schools and left constant turnover in needier schools.

When asked a few years ago about seniority-driven layoffs, 98% of principals reported losing a quality teacher to LIFO that they needed for their program.

Researchers told us that was double the rate in comparable districts elsewhere.

Parents like Forslund can’t expect a lot of support locally. The most politically active citizens here are white, college educated, and highly likely to practice a perverse form of educational hording whereby they choose select schools zoned into segregated areas, then fight shoulder to shoulder with teachers’ unions to cut off roads to educational opportunity for kids left behind in education deserts.

I once brought information showing that Minneapolis had lost 50% of it’s black teachers due to seniority and LIFO to the executive director of a faith-based non-profit known to talking relentlessly about racial equity.

Her response: “that sounds like teacher-bashing.”

A teachers’ union president was more forward, asking me: “which one of our experienced white teachers should we fire to make room for one of yours?”

Having been on the school board, and having seen the evidence of teachers who had no business being anywhere near a classroom, I could have easily given her a list.

I’ll never get tired of reminding people that one of the teachers let go from Minneapolis Public Schools during layoffs was Lee-Ann Stephens, a black teacher who became teacher of the year for the state of Minnesota shortly after being let go.

Today she’s a National Board Certified teacher in the last stage of pursuing a doctorate degree.

Be clear, challenging Minnesota tenure laws won’t fix all our problems. It won’t bring back all the high quality teachers that wanted to teach in the urban areas who now teach in the suburbs because they were let go like Stephens.

But addressing quality-blind tenure rules is an obvious step toward making sure effective teaching drives our system, not merely time on the job.

Many will talk about the motives of cases like Forslund’s, or the backers of cases like it. I’m more simple than that. I look at the claim of the parents (yes, remember them) and ask “is it valid.”

All available evidence tells me it is.

Chris Stewart is the Chief Executive Officer of Education Post, a media project of the Results in Education Foundation. He is a lifelong activist and 20-year supporter of nonprofit and education-related causes. Stewart has served as the director of outreach and external affairs for Education Post, the executive director of the African American Leadership Forum (AALF), and an elected member of the Minneapolis Public Schools Board of Education.



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