Senate GOP bills would change how Minnesota teachers disclose curriculum to parents

A national effort is underway to reshape how parents engage with school boards, teachers

By: - February 14, 2022 1:21 pm

Photo courtesy of Shakopee Public Schools.

Minnesota Senate Republicans on Monday unveiled a series of bills they say would empower parents to review and object to school curriculum. 

Four GOP lawmakers, including two running for governor, said they want to enshrine in state law the principle that a parent has a right to direct their child’s education.

Parents know what’s best for their kids in their education,” state Sen. Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, said during a news conference. The former majority leader is seeking his party’s endorsement for governor. 

“Let’s make a syllabus available in every classroom in Minnesota,” said state Sen. Michelle Benson, R-Ham Lake, who is also running for governor. 

Details about the proposals were scarce. Under current state law, school districts have to provide instructional materials for parents’ review upon request, as well as “alternative instruction” if parents object to the content.

“You’re getting down in the weeds,” said Senate Education Finance and Policy Chair Sen. Roger Chamberlain, R-Lino Lakes, when asked for details. “The rabbit holes are something we are not going to chase you down.”

Lawmakers did not provide examples of the types of materials, books or curriculum they said some parents had found objectionable. They also did not quantify how many of the state’s more than 300 school districts were host to contentious curriculum debates. 

So-called parents’ rights legislation is being introduced in a number of states, including Wisconsin, as well as in Congress. This follows conservative furor over cultural issues that some say propelled Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin into office in Virginia. Youngkin made education a key message in his race for governor. The conservative base of the GOP is particularly exercised about how racial issues are being addressed in public schools. 

Some educators say the new regulations would tax already overburdened school districts, administrators and teachers. 

In Indiana, for instance, parents already have an “exhaustive process” to express concerns with curriculum, according to an association of school boards. 

“There’s more political grandstanding than having a legitimate value or impact about what should be taught,” Terry Spradlin, executive director of the Indiana School Boards Association, told Stateline. “I think [the bill] could have a profound effect, driving more educators out of the classroom, and really hamper their skill and ability to teach curriculum effectively.”

The Minnesota parents’ rights bill has support from the Minnesota Family Council, a conservative Christian group.

“In Minnesota, parents have been shocked to discover that their child is taught to question her gender identity and sexual identity,” wrote Veronica Missling, the group’s director of public policy. “They are appalled when she is exposed to topics like ‘institutionalized racism’ at a young age, and before they have introduced these sensitive topics.”

Denise Specht, president of Education Minnesota, said in a statement the bills are divisive and inflammatory.

“Every educator I know welcomes conversations with parents about the lessons being taught in school, but GOP senators today presented a plan to drop a crushing amount of extra paperwork on already exhausted teachers without a plan for how it would work, how parents would use the information, or even if it was necessary,” Specht said. “When mandating more work for every teacher in the state, the details matter.”

The Minnesota School Boards Association, Association of Metropolitan School Districts and Minnesota Association of School Administrators in a letter said they did not support additional requirements to codify parent engagement, which they said is already strong. 

“We encourage you to strive to enact policies that ensure parents are involved in their child’s education, ensure professional educators will effectively meet the needs of each of their students, and avoid time-consuming and costly new mandates,” the organization wrote in a letter published Monday.

The Senate Republicans also proposed prohibiting school districts from requiring that parents publicly disclose their home address when testifying during a school board meeting. Chamberlain said it would prevent doxxing, which refers to the practice of publicly revealing a person’s personal information for targeted harassment. 

The Mankato School Board came under fire after its chair, Jodi Sapp, asked a resident to state his home address for the record, a rule she told the Mankato Free Press had been in effect for her entire tenure on the school board.  

Sapp told the newspaper that school board members find it “helpful” to know if a parent lives in the district, just as many lawmakers like to know whether people writing to them about issues are their constituents. 

In November, the school board said it would no longer require speakers to state their home addresses publicly, but they will still be asked to provide their address in writing.

Chamberlain also touted legislation to create education savings accounts, which give parents the option to place their children in private schools, paid for with public funds, excluding home schooling. 

It’s unlikely the bills would advance and become law in a divided Legislature in their proposed form.

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