Equity issues at stake in the Minneapolis teacher strike

Two women hold a sign about being in a union.
Catina Taylor and Tequila Laramee, education support professionals and organizers with the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers before the strike began.
Ben Hovland | Sahan Journal

When Minneapolis educators walked out on strike last week, Hopa Stevens, a student at South High, thought it might be nice to have a few days off to catch up on school work.

Now, more than eight days of canceled classes later, she’s starting to worry, especially with spring break coming up.

“I wasn’t anticipating it being this long,” Stevens said. “I’m kind of worried about my math and falling behind.”

But the student also thinks Minneapolis teachers are right to strike. She especially agrees with their demands for better wages for education support professionals, smaller class sizes and student mental health supports. For her, those priorities are not only connected but would have a direct impact on her experience at school.

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“In a lot of classes, [ESPs] are big helps, especially with such big [class] sizes,” Stevens said.

The 11th grader has seen her classmates struggle with mental health this year in unusual ways. When there are fights and things have felt chaotic, Hopa is especially thankful for ESPs who calm students and get them back on track while teachers focus on moving the lesson forward.

The majority of Minneapolis’ ESPs are people of color and work as special education assistants, associate educators, school success program assistants and child care assistants, among other roles. The starting wage for the lowest paid of these positions is $24,000 per year. The Minneapolis Federation of Teachers is asking the district to raise the starting wage to $35,000 per year. Over half of Minneapolis ESPs have second or third jobs, according to the union.

The district agrees it needs to raise ESP wages, but it is still millions of dollars apart in negotiations from what the union wants. As of Wednesday, the union was asking for a 23 to 44 percent wage bump for ESPs over two years. The district was sticking to a 9 percent wage increase over two years.

The Minneapolis NAACP supports the union’s push for higher ESP wages.

“This is unacceptable,” said Minneapolis NAACP president Cynthia Wilson. “Our ESPs need to be paid and our Black teachers need to be retained. Period.”

“When these Black kids come into these schools and they see people that look like them, they’re able to deal with the situations they’re going through,” Wilson added.

Student Hopa Stevens agreed that educators of color in her school make a difference. Stevens, who is Indigenous, said she has come to rely on a support professional who is Puerto Rican.

“He’s always there, ‘Hey Hopa, how’s your day?’ He’s taken the time to learn about our language, he continues to learn about our culture and he also helps me with my math,” Stevens said. “He’s been such a big help throughout my whole high school career.”

Multiple studies have shown that educators of color can improve students’ performance. Black students see academic and graduation gains when paired with Black teachers.

In Minneapolis Public Schools, 63 percent of students are kids of color — closer to the percentage of Minneapolis ESPs than classroom teachers, nearly 80 percent of whom are white.

Nafeesah Muhammad, an English teacher in the Minneapolis district said her colleagues “are the safety nets but safety nets get tattered too.”

“How can we show up as the best for our kids when our district, our state refuse to give us their best?” Muhammad said. “Pay our ESPs, our Black ESPs, our ESPs of color a living wage. They deserve it.”

The NAACP has a demand for the union, too:  The association wants more protections from layoffs for teachers of color written in the contract.

Muhammad said without the language, “we are signaling to our children that we don’t value people who look like them. We need to stand up and put equity over equality.”