Pandemic health precautions, falling test scores and discomfort over the way schools address sensitive topics like race, gender and American history have inspired a wave of Minnesota school board candidates who are running on conservative talking points.
From Hastings and Stillwater to Brainerd and Rochester, voters throughout the state are hearing an unusually sharp contrast in views on how public schools should be run.
On the left are candidates backed by local teachers unions, which generally support equity initiatives, insist on academic freedom for educators and care more about students’ mental health than their test scores.
On the right are contenders supported by emerging groups like the Minnesota Parents Alliance, which argues schools should focus on academics, leaving parents to instruct their own children on morality, gender, race and emotional management.
There are 20 school districts in the state where both the local teachers union and the Parents Alliance have made endorsements. Of the combined 112 endorsed candidates, only two are backed by both groups.
MORE ATTENTION ON SCHOOLS
Minnesota school board races usually are low-profile affairs. If a candidate raises and spends any money campaigning, it rarely adds up to $10,000. There might be a candidate forum or two, but endorsements are not the norm throughout the state.
That’s been changing, though, in the last couple of years as schools across the country have been under increasing scrutiny.
Local decisions to close schools during the coronavirus pandemic — and to require face masks once they reopened — brought a new kind of outraged parent to school board meetings.
Meanwhile, school districts have been taking a closer look at systemic inequities following the murder of George Floyd, changing their grading practices and curtailing the use of suspensions for students of color, which critics see as unfair or unwise — even racist.
U.S. schools also have been making accommodations for transgender students, letting them pick which sports teams they compete on, which bathrooms they use and which pronouns they prefer — in some cases without their parents’ permission. The sudden changes have confused and upset some parents who worry about their cisgender children’s safety or that schools are usurping their authority to teach what’s right and wrong.
All the while, prominent conservatives have been fanning the flames of discontent.
Activist Christopher Rufo turned “critical race theory” into a common curse word in the conservative media, making parents suspicious of school-based efforts to promote equity, teach social-emotional skills or explore politically fraught subjects.
Steve Bannon, President Donald Trump’s former strategist, saw the potential for once-sleepy school board races to improve Republicans’ prospects on a larger scale.
“The path to save the nation is very simple — it’s going to go through the school boards,” he said on his podcast in May 2021, raising alarm over the way schools are teaching about race and American history.
A chorus of advocacy groups such as Moms for Liberty, No Left Turn and Parents Defending Education have added to the fray.
“It seems clear that they are all working in a very concerted way to undermine trust and confidence in public education in order to push a privatization of schools,” said Karin Chenoweth, a former education writer and student advocate who recently started a website, Democracy and Education, which offers resources for liberal school board candidates.
WHO IS PARENTS ALLIANCE?
In Minnesota last year, the Center of the American Experiment — a prominent think tank and member of the State Policy Network, which promotes conservative positions like an opposition to public-sector unions and support for voucher laws that help parents redirect tax dollars toward private school tuition — toured the state to fight against an “alarming” rewrite of the K-12 social studies standards for Minnesota schools.
“We filled rooms all across the state,” said the Center’s spokesman, Bill Walsh.
When the tour was over, the Center seized on the momentum by holding a candidate school where around 30 school board candidates heard about critical race theory, school funding and how to get elected.
When few of their candidates won last fall, the Center made plans for a spinoff nonprofit that would focus on school board elections.
Cristine Trooien, a Mound woman who helped run a school board campaign last year, would become the founder of the Minnesota Parents Alliance, with Center president John Hinderaker and chairman Ron Eibensteiner joining her on its three-person governing board.
The Parents Alliance website links to Center articles highlighting problems and controversial programs in Minnesota’s public schools. It also offers a variety of opt-out forms parents can use to excuse their children from surveys, sex education, immunizations and questions about their preferred pronouns, as well as lessons that address race, equity, sexuality, gender and LGBTQ topics, social justice, social-emotional learning, political commentary and history that uses “editorialized viewpoints.”
The organization doesn’t fund candidates but does offer an online voter guide with the names of 115 endorsed candidates from 52 districts.
Trooien said the endorsements are based on nothing more than the candidates’ responses to a brief questionnaire. The Parents Alliance supports candidates who will prioritize academic achievement, equality and parental rights, as well as transparency and accountability. Only one or two candidates filled out the survey and did not earn the group’s endorsement, she said.
WHAT CANDIDATES SAY
The voter guide includes brief statements from 104 of the 115 candidates. According to a Pioneer Press analysis of those statements:
60 candidates mentioned a desire for schools to focus on academic achievement or just “teach the basics.”
45 discussed wanting to take politics, bias or activism out of schools or to stop schools from indoctrinating children.
45 cited parent empowerment as a value.
17 were unhappy with the way schools are handling matters related to race, gender, equity or sexuality.
Nine expressed opposition to mask mandates or other measures schools took to protect students and staff from the coronavirus.
Despite its close ties to the Center of the American Experiment, Trooien said it’s untrue that the Parents Alliance and its candidates are “anti-public schools.”
“I can tell you with full confidence that nobody would be working as hard as these parent challenger candidates if they didn’t believe in public schools and want to make them better,” she said.
“These aren’t the parents that want to get out of public schools, these aren’t the parents that want to de-fund them, these aren’t even the parents that are advocating for school choice. They need to keep sending their kids to public school because they don’t have any other options, and they want to improve the quality of public schools.”
TEACHERS MORE ACTIVE
The emergence of outspoken conservative candidates in the last two years has motivated local teachers unions.
“We’re seeing local unions (getting involved in campaigns) that have never really participated at any level in endorsements or even interviewed candidates, because the stakes are so high,” Education Minnesota President Denise Specht said.
In more conservative states, policymakers have removed books on sensitive topics from school libraries and tried to limit the way schools can teach about race.
In Becker, the school board considered — but ultimately tabled — a policy in August that would have prohibited “political indoctrination or the teaching of inherently divisive concepts,” including white supremacy.
“If it can happen in other places, it can happen here,” Specht said. “And it’s happening here.”
A heated race in Hastings last year saw the outing of an incumbent board member’s transgender child. A cooperating slate of three conservative candidates went on to sweep the close election, defeating all three of the teachers union’s picks.
The incumbent board quickly adopted a policy seemingly intended to keep the newcomers in line. Then, four months after the winners took office, the board majority censured one of them, Mike Reis, for disclosing “confidential information” and for “excessively burden(ing) District administration with requests for information” that was unrelated to the board’s work.
Reis, who did not respond to an interview request, resigned in July, setting the stage for a three-person special election this fall.
HASTINGS SPECIAL ELECTION
Lori Best, president of the teachers union in Hastings, said her local hadn’t endorsed for about a decade until last year’s election.
“It just seemed as though it was much more divisive and we felt like we needed to take a stand for who we felt would be candidates who would listen and learn and ones that were going to partner with us … to serve all students,” she said.
The newly constituted school board has exhibited a lot of contention and mistrust, she said, challenging the administration on routine matters.
Some of the conversation around the special election has centered on the materials available in the high school library, including the graphic memoir “Gender Queer,” which has drawings of masturbation and oral sex.
Todd Kullmann, who helped get last year’s slate elected, is running as a candidate this year with support from the Parents Alliance.
“I see a lot of distraction,” he said. “I think our teachers need to be more focused on educating our students and not putting what we see in the news and in our progressive culture into the classroom — other than giving the opportunity for the students to be critical thinkers about it.”
As for the book, Kullmann said, “It needs to come off” the shelf, he said, calling images “vulgar and pornographic.”
Mark Zuzek, the teacher-endorsed candidate in Hastings, is a former teacher and superintendent.
“I’m concerned over — not just in Hastings but other places — when people run for school board because they want to turn the whole system upside down and change everything,” he said. “The reason to run for school board is because you care deeply about the children.”
Zuzek recalled discovering the women’s health book “Our Bodies, Ourselves” in the same high school library when he was a student. Like “Gender Queer,” it included graphic images for educational purposes, he said.
Zuzek thinks “Gender Queer” should continue to be available to Hastings high schoolers.
“My thought is that even though those sketches are in there, they are not harmful to the educational purposes of a person reading that would want to read that book,” he said. “The book is important for kids that we need to serve and we need to protect.”
OTHER CONTESTED RACES
There are similar showdowns taking place throughout the state this fall, some with the potential to dramatically change the direction of the school district.
In Brainerd, five Parents Alliance-endorsed candidates are running against five union-endorsed candidates. In Owatonna, Rochester, Eastern Carver County and Prior Lake-Eagan-Savage, each organization is backing four different contenders.
In Stillwater, five of seven seats are up for grabs. The teachers union has endorsed five candidates, the Parents Alliance three.
Stark differences were on display during a recent candidate forum where Parents Alliance candidates teamed up against the incumbents over sagging test scores and called for more parent control over what’s taught in schools.
“The concentration needs to be on academics and getting back to the basics, not on social issues,” Larry Becking said.
Beverly Petrie, one of three incumbents, assured viewers that “the sky is not falling” and said a “back-to-basics” approach is not the answer.
“Every student who comes into our school each day needs to be seen and appreciated for who they are,” she said. “If we don’t do this, it’s really going to be hard for them to focus on academics.”