The Minneapolis teachers’ strike kicked off this week with a huge turnout. Over 4,000 teachers and Educational Support Professionals (ESPs) are on strike for the first time in 50 years. The teachers are demanding smaller class sizes, increased wages (especially for ESPs who are mostly people of color), increased mental health support for students, and retention of educators of color. Students, parents, and community members have joined these educators in this strike.
The Teachers’ Demands Are Anti-Racist
With the George Floyd uprising, Minneapolis saw the rebirth of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement. The police violently repressed community members and people burned down the 3rd precinct. A few months later, on November 4, 2020, over 600 community members and BLM activists were arrested during a protest on the 1-94 freeway, the largest mass arrest in Minnesota’s history. People are still facing charges. During the Derek Chauvin trial which coincided with the police murder of Daunte Wright, community members were once again brutalized with tear gas and rubber bullets, and the Twin Cities were crawling with National Guard.
Against this backdrop, it comes as no surprise that the teachers who do the labor of nurturing the younger members of our society are on strike for racial justice. All of their demands are directly connected to the Black struggle.
The union is demanding wage increases for teachers and ESPs. In Minneapolis, a teacher with a master’s degree can expect to make $75,000 a year after 20 years of service, while in the neighboring Saint Paul and Anoka-Hennepin districts, a teacher with the same qualifications will make that much in just eight to 12 years. The union is also demanding that the district raise the ESP starting salary from $24,000 to $35,000 per year. The ESPs, who are mostly people of color, currently make poverty wages. Anything less than $35,000 would essentially be a pay cut given the 7.9 percent inflation rate.
The union wants the district to make concerted efforts to recruit teachers of color. A year ago, the union proposed a Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) providing protections against laying off educators of color. The school district did not agree to it and now that the strike is in progress, it is claiming that the union will not discuss equity initiatives — a clear attempt to detract from the union’s demands.
If the school district was really concerned about equity, it would have agreed to the teachers’ demands of smaller class sizes. Besides providing a better learning environment for students and manageable workload for teachers and ESPs, reduced class sizes would also prevent educators from being excessed and promote hiring, since more teachers would be needed.
The teachers are asking for increased mental health support for their students. Minnesota has one of the worst student-to-counselor ratios in the country. While the national student to counselor ratio is about 430:1, in Minnesota it is above 600:1. The combined trauma from the pandemic and violent, racist police repression has disproportionately impacted students of color — we urgently need need more school counselors to help students cope.
False Claims by the School District and Proponents of Defunding Public Education
The school district has attempted to frame this strike as being anti-student. Minnesota Federation of Teachers and Educational Support professionals (MFT59) claims that the district has put out misinformation about ongoing mediations without showing counter proposals put forth by the union.
A small non-profit called Minnesota Parent Union has gone on to falsely claim that the union’s demands are racist. The Parent Union claimed that the strike is white supremacist and has called on the MFT59 to end the strike and focus on “achievement outcomes,” i.e., standardized tests. But standardized tests were developed by eugenicists, and have been used as instruments of racism: they favor affluent white students who have better opportunities to prepare for these tests compared to low-income students of color.
Minnesota Parent Union is also a supporter of the controversial Page Amendment put forward by retired Minnesota Supreme Court Justice Alan Page and Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis and CEO, Neel Kashkari. If approved, the Page Amendment would change the constitutional language from “the uniformity or efficiency of the system” to “the quality of public education offered to people.” This means that this amendment would replace the guarantee of a free public education with “quality education” as a fundamental right, and standardized tests would be the measure of that quality.
The Page Amendment would need a majority vote of the state house and Senate to get on the ballot later this year. This would open the door for Minnesotans to fight claims of education inequities in court, but it would also make it easier for charter schools to swoop in claiming to be solutions to these inequities. This, in turn,would further drain resources and enrollment from public schools. Charter schools also lead to re-segregation of public education since they have significant leeway in how they structure their admission policies, and can exclude certain students.
To understand why the Minnesota Parent Union is promoting policies that perpetuate racism and segregation — while claiming that the Minnesota teachers’ strike is racist — we need to look no further than where this group has gotten its funding. Minneapolis Foundation, which has historically supported defunding public education, has directly and indirectly funded Minnesota Parent Union, which is a backer of the Page Amendment. Rob Levine, who has done extensive work on the philanthropic education reform movement writes, “For 30 years the Minneapolis Foundation and its allies have been creating, funding, and persuading the legislature to loosen requirements on charter schools in the state. Over that same period, they have been pushing for data (test) driven education policies. One of the foundations’ overarching education strategies — which they dare not say aloud — is to fuel the proliferation of charter schools through race or ethnicity-based appeals to parents.”
The history of racism in education cannot be ignored. But using real experiences of racial trauma as a union-busting tactic in order to promote defunding of public education will only promote more racism and re-segregation in education. If we truly want to be anti-racist, we must join the Minneapolis teachers in their fight for Black lives.