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Analysis: Minneapolis schools racial layoff policy will have trouble withstanding legal challenges

The lawsuit claims the provision violates the state's Equal Protection Guarantee, and asks a Hennepin County judge to stop Minneapolis schools from implementing it.

MINNEAPOLIS — A new Minneapolis Public Schools policy that would protect teachers of color from layoffs despite seniority is being challenged in court.

That policy was part of the new teacher's union contract and has sparked national interest.

Constitutional experts tell KARE 11 news that this policy, which explicitly involves race-based decisions made by a government entity, will have trouble standing up in court. But it might not be the lawsuit that overturns it.

After striking for three weeks in March, when Minneapolis teachers and the district reached a new contract agreement, they announced protections for teachers of color.

During district-wide layoffs, the new contract says "teachers who are members of underrepresented populations" are "exempted" from the last-hired, first-fired approach. That means a white teacher with more seniority would be laid off instead.

"Moving forward, we've got a system we can model across the country here in the state of Minnesota about how to can address this issue," Shaun Laden from the Minnesota Federation of Teachers. 

Now a lawsuit claims the provision violates the state's Equal Protection Guarantee — Minnesota's version of the U.S. Constitution's racial discrimination clause in the 14th Amendment — and asks a Hennepin County judge to stop Minneapolis schools from implementing it.

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"The court doesn't like policies where race is the only relevant factor," said Jill Hasday, who teaches constitutional law and anti-discrimination law at the University of Minnesota.

Hasday said the policy will have a difficult time surviving legal challenges.

The teacher contract included language anticipating legal challenges. It states the purpose of the policy is to "remedy the continuing effects of past discrimination by the District."

But Hasday says the courts would need actual legal claims of past racial discrimination.

"Because there have been cases where districts have asserted their own past practices of discrimination, and the court has said 'that's not enough. We want an actual judicial finding.'" Hasday said.

Despite these challenges, Hasday says it's possible this particular lawsuit won't flip the policy because it's filed by a taxpayer rather than an actual teacher laid off as a result of the policy.

"It's much less clear whether any ordinary taxpayer in Minneapolis can sue because their injury really isn't distinct," Hasday said.

This lawsuit was filed by a Washington DC conservative foundation called Judicial Watch with a plaintiff named Deborah Clapp, who lives in Minneapolis. 

The first step as it goes through the courts will be for a Hennepin County judge to decide whether Clapp has standing to sue and district court is the right jurisdiction.

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