Understanding the attack on teacher tenure – Guest blog by Doug Mann


Guest blog: This week I have a commentary by a reader. Doug Mann provides background about the issue of tenure for teachers in Minneapolis. His analysis, identifying how the Right has pushed this issue and why systemic racism has to be named in defending teachers’ rights to due process, applies in most respects to other urban school districts.  Doug is the Green Party candidate for Minneapolis School Board, citywide, and an education activist.


The Vergara decision, if upheld on appeal, will strip away key union job

protections for teachers, including tenure rights. Teachers will become at-will

employees. "Job protection unionism" will become a crime for public school



      Minneapolis Public School superintendents, going at least as far back as

Thandiwe Peebles, have been lobbying the legislature to take tenure and

seniority rights away from teachers, and have gotten some concession on these

issues from the teachers union in recent collective bargaining agreements.


      School board member Carla Bates was a founder and chief spokesperson for

Put Kids First Minneapolis, and former School Board member Chris Stewart became

a leader in that organization after leaving the Minneapolis School Board. The

mission of Put Kids First Minneapolis is to strip away key union job

protections for teachers, arguing that bad teachers who get tenure can't be



      In my opinion, a lot of public support for eliminating teacher job

protections from those who are poorly served by the public schools  represents

misdirected anger about bad teaching in the public schools. The problem is too

much job protection for "bad teachers," according to corporate school

reformers. As I will outline in detail in the following paragraphs, teachers

are being used as scapegoats for problems created by actions of the School

Board and policy makers at the state and federal level. The Board has played a

role in segregating students by race and income, and undermining the quality of

education provided to most students of color and many poor whites. Rather than

pitting parent and students against the teachers union by word and deed, I am

appealing to the teachers union to take the side of parents and students who

are poorly served by the school district, and demand changes in policy that can

make a quality, public education available to all on an equal basis.


The Separate but Equal doctrine resurrected in Minnesota


      The Minneapolis School Board passed a resolution in 1995, entitled

"Closing the gap: Ensuring that all children can learn. The strategy proposed

was to establish a system of "community schools" in which students within a

defined area were guaranteed enrollment. The idea was to assign students closer

to home, which would reduce the cost of transporting them to schools, and

increase parent involvement. The Closing the Gap resolution promised to use

money saved on bus transportation to upgrade the quality of education in high

poverty schools, and to minimize the segregative effect of the Community School

Plan: Two promises never kept. The Minneapolis City Council passed a resolution

in support of the Community School Plan, and the State Board of Education

(since dissolved by the legislature) granted the district a waiver from

Desegregation Rules.


     In the fall of 1997, the school district began to promote part-time

ability-grouping for reading and / or math, where students were assigned to

separate classrooms for reading or math instruction according to ability at the

beginning of first grade. Instruction for "high ability" students was based on

a standard academic curriculum with varying degrees of enrichment. The

curriculum for a majority of students was watered-down to varying degrees. The

district did not formally evaluate the effects of its ability-grouping

practices on students, as required under Title 6 of the Civil Rights Act of

1964, according to the US commission on Civil Rights.  First hand observation

of the effects of ability-grouping practices and reviews of student test score

data broken down by race and poverty indicated that the district's ability

grouping practices were harmful to the majority of students.


     The high concentration of inexperienced teachers in high poverty schools

was brought to my attention after I joined the National Association for the

Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in December 1997 and soon thereafter

became a member of the Education Advocacy committee of the Minneapolis branch

of the NAACP and a plaintiff in Xiong et al vs. Minnesota, a lawsuit merged

with NAACP's education adequacy lawsuit against the state of Minnesota. In the

spring of 2004, the district noted that about 25% of regular Ed teachers and

about 33% of special Ed teachers had not completed their 3 year, post-hire

probationary period. At that time the district sent lay off notices to all

probationary teachers every spring. Under the Teacher Tenure Act for Cities of

the First Class, a layoff notice to a probationary teacher is a notice of

termination of employment. The district is free to replace any and all

probationary teachers the next fall. Tenured Teachers in Cities of the First

Class must be offered continuing employment before they can be replaced by

newly hired teacher. All teachers covered by the Teacher Tenure Act that

applies to the rest of the State of Minnesota have the same recall rights as

Tenured Teachers in Minneapolis.


       The Minneapolis School District stopped firing all probationary

teachers, and selectively rehiring and replacing them around 2010. However, the

district invented a new class of layoffs: Performance Layoffs. A large

proportion of teachers are "performance laid-off" before finishing their 3 year

probationary period. These probationary teacher are heavily concentrated in

high poverty schools. Since 2009, the district has also had a contract with

Teach For America to supply provisionally licensed teachers with little formal

teacher training to work in high poverty schools, including in licensure areas,

such as early elementary education, where there is an abundant supply of

regularly licensed teachers who are looking for a teaching job.


       The high concentration of inexperienced teachers in high poverty schools

is certainly a consequence of firing and replacing a large proportion of

teachers before they finish their 3 year probationary period. Other

probationary teachers quit or bid out of high poverty schools at the first

opportunity due to lack of job security and inadequate support, including a

lack of support for high needs students in the classroom. Educational Support

Paraprofessionals should be helping Special Ed students who are assigned to

mainstream classrooms as well as being assigned to Special Ed resource rooms.


      In 2000, the Minneapolis School District was reprimanded by the Federal

Department of Education for labeling 25% of all African-American students, and

close to 40% of African American males as having Emotional Behavioral Disorders

and enrolling them in Special Ed programs where they are not getting

appropriate services. Things haven't changed much in this respect. Minneapolis

enrolls a higher proportion of its students in Special Ed programs than any

other school district in the United States of America.


     Beginning in the late 1990s, the Minneapolis School District successfully

carried out a plan to retain nearly all teachers at 2 elementary schools:

Elizabeth Hall and North Star. The strategic goal of the 2002 District

Improvement Plan was to bring teacher turnover rates to low levels in all

schools. However, the District Administration actively sabotaged the plan by

firing all probationary teachers every year, and by starving high poverty

schools of the resources that they should be getting. The district has been

getting substantial funding from federal Title 1 and state compensatory funds

because a large proportion of the student population is eligible for free and

reduced-price lunches.


     At a School Board meeting in 2008, there was a discussion about a proposed

covenant between the District and a coalition of African American parents,

educators and other community members. The African American group asked for a

non-binding promise by the district to establish two model schools for poor

African American students. The only criterion for a model school identified by

the African American group was a very low teacher turnover rate. Board member

Lydia Lee stated that the district could not afford to increase teacher

retention rates in high poverty schools, not even in just two schools, unless

the district found new money for that purpose.  High teacher retention rates in

low poverty schools is not a problem, so why isn't there money to increase

teacher retention rates in high poverty schools?


      Maintaining a large pool of probationary teachers in the district makes

no sense at all, except as a cost containment strategy. However, it is

questionable that the district really saves very much, if any money by doing

so. The increased cost of allowing most newly hired teachers to complete their

probationary period and to become tenured teachers would be negligible over a

period of 5 years, when you consider money saved on recruitment of new teachers

and the extra training they need. Performance evaluations should be focused on

providing constructive criticism that can help teachers improve their practice.

There should be more support for classroom teachers in high poverty schools in

order to reduce job stress and facilitate their professional development. The

co-teaching model used at Lucy Laney school right now is an example of the type

of support that regular classroom teachers should be offered to motivate them

to stay in high poverty schools. Educational Support Paraprofessionals in the

Special Ed department should be in regular Ed classrooms to provide support for

mainstreamed special Ed students.


      The Minneapolis School District has a huge population of special Ed

students not only because a large proportion of poor students experience toxic

levels of stress outside of schools, but also because of toxic stress

experienced inside of the schools. The District acknowledged that taking steps

necessary to stabilize the teaching staff in high poverty schools makes a huge

difference in outcomes for the students: Higher test scores, fewer student

behavior problems, higher levels of parent satisfaction with the schools. But

the District's leadership shows no inclination to bring teacher turnover rates

to low levels in all schools.


     K-12 students in the Minneapolis Public Schools are being damaged by

malfunctioning regular Ed programs, and then assigned to special Ed programs

where they often do not get appropriate services so they can stay in

mainstream, regular Ed classrooms. At best, the District gets reimbursement for

40% of special Ed expenditures. Over-enrollment of students in Special Ed

programs because of malfunctioning of regular Ed programs is an investment of

resources to remediate a problem that could be solved by taking the steps

necessary to shrink the pool of probationary teachers and to achieve low

teacher turnover rates in all schools. Maintaining a large pool of probationary

teachers should not be tolerated as a cost containment strategy, in part

because it has a disparate effect on the majority of students of color and many

poor whites.


About Author
LOIS WEINER writes widely about education, labor, and politics, specializing in teacher unionism. Her new book looks at lessons for the Left  in capitalism's alteration of work and education, and how teachers and their unions can resist with support to and of movements for social justice.

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