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Minnesota lawmakers aim to boost teacher diversity, shrink achievement gap

Rep. Mary Kunesh-Podein, DFL-New Brighton, left, along with Sen. Patricia Torres Ray, DFL-Minneapolis, right, introduce legislation aimed at boosting the number of teachers of color and American Indian teachers in Minnesota. Dana Ferguson / FORUM NEWS SERVICE

ST. PAUL -- A bipartisan group of Minnesota lawmakers is hopeful that data illustrating the state is one of the worst in the nation when it comes to the achievement gap for students of color will ensure the approval of a proposal to recruit more teachers of color and American Indian teachers to Minnesota classrooms.

At a news conference Monday, Feb. 11, legislators said they'd again bring a bill that would grow current efforts to get people of color into teaching and add incentives like scholarships and student teaching grants to increase the pipeline of people of color and American Indian people entering the field.

The measure would also increase efforts to retain teachers of color by setting up mentoring programs and professional development courses and provide for retention bonuses.

The bill's sponsors said they hoped to "move the needle" on representation, boosting the number of teachers of color and American Indian teachers by two percentage points per year until the state's teachers more closely mirror the student population in 2040.

The pitch comes after a state report on teacher supply and demand found that the number of students of color in Minnesota is growing while the number of teachers of color and American Indian teachers has remained flat at 4 percent of total teachers.

"We have a problem of recruiting teachers in the state of Minnesota and that it is urgent that we do something about it," Sen. Patricia Torres Ray, DFL-Minneapolis, said. "[Students] don't see themselves reflected in their teachers."

Lawmakers and education advocates pushing for the bill's passage said they were optimistic that legislators would take a new look at the proposal after national reviews found Minnesota had one of the worst achievement gaps for students of color.

"The nation-leading achievement gap is really an embarrassment and I think this bill really goes a long way to minimize and reduce the achievement gap in Minnesota," Rep. Jon Koznick, R-Lakeville, said.

Rep. Mary Kunesh-Podein, DFL-New Brighton, said the new composition of the state Legislature could also improve the bill's odds of passage. The Legislature includes the most diverse group of lawmakers in its history, she said and is more reflective of the people it represents.

"These are the people that have really lived the experiences of the students," Kunesh-Podein said.