A lot is at stake in this year's school board elections. Getty Images.
For many Minnesotans, the only races on their Nov. 7 ballot will be their local school board election, but the stakes are high.
Multiple factors are driving intensity of these nominally nonpartisan races:
First, education is at the center of a swirl of culture war issues Republicans have been driving in the past few years, including opposition to rights for trans children and the teaching of the role of race and white supremacy in American history.
Jamie Kokaisel, a South Washington County School Board candidate, has a chatty blog detailing her thoughts on culture-war topics like diversity in schools, feminism and single-parent households.
“Our current government leans Progressive, and they are incentivizing single-parent families, sex outside of marriage, promiscuity, abortion, and a gender fluid lifestyle,” Kokaisel wrote in one blog post.
In a statement she gave for the Minnesota Parents Alliance voters’ guide, Kokaisel implies that public schools can improve if they become more like private schools.
“Once I saw how GREAT education could be in the private school models, it became very clear to me that fundamental GOODNESS was missing in the public school,” said Kokaisel, who unsuccessfully ran for South Washington County School Board in 2021.
The conservative movement group Freedom Club has referred its supporters to trainings provided by the Minnesota Parents Alliance, which says it’s a nonpartisan group with members who have supported Democratic candidates. But most of the school board candidates the MPA endorsed in its 2023 voters’ guide have ties to the GOP and/or the conservative movement, or promote right-leaning messages and ideas.
The MPA, which has in the past partnered with conservative organizations like the Center of the American Experiment and the Child Protection League, has emerged this year as a key asset for right-leaning candidates, including a published voters’ guide with endorsements. Cristine Trooien, MPA executive director, said in a statement to the Reformer that the group endorses candidates regardless of their political affiliation “who are willing to set divisive issues aside and refocus on academic achievement and ensuring students can reach their highest potential in a values-neutral environment.”
Still, many of the MPA’s endorsed candidates have ties to local Republicans and promote the same messaging: strengthen parental rights, prioritize academic achievement and keep left wing politics out of school.
For example, two MPA candidates in the Anoka-Hennepin School Board race — Linda Hoekman and Scott Simmons — are endorsed by the 31st and 35th Senate District Republicans, and in their Minnesota Parents Alliance endorsement statements, they say they want to strengthen parental rights.
“I am committed to restoring excellence, freedom, and fairness to our schools by working with parents to ensure our children are protected from danger and politicized instruction,” Hoekman said.
Democrats and progressive education advocates say “parental rights” is often just a trojan horse to smuggle conservative ideology into school.
There’s another reason conservatives are so focused on the school boards, however: Republicans in the Legislature are currently shut out of power at the State Capitol and are desperate to develop candidates. School boards are an ideal place to start.
House Minority Leader Lisa Demuth, R-Cold Spring, Sen. Zach Duckworth, R-Lakeville, and on the DFL side Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan, were all school board members before seeking higher office.
Candidates like Kokaisel are running across the state, as Republicans try to nurture a bench of candidates for the Legislature.
Back in July, Freedom Club sent an email to supporters with the subject line “Help us shape Minnesota’s future.”
“This summer we begin to lay the groundwork to elect conservatives to local school boards in 2023, with our sights firmly set on reclaiming the Minnesota House in 2024,” the email states.
In an interview with WCOO, Trooien, Minnesota Parents Alliance executive director, downplayed the partisanship of school board races.
“I’m always a little taken back that our group gets tagged as a conservative activist group because I myself was a Democratic voter,” Trooien said. “I’m always befuddled that somehow academic achievement and parental involvement has become political.”
Earlier this year a left-leaning group with DFL Party ties called the School Board Integrity Project launched to provide training to candidates who will prioritize students.
Kyrstin Schuette, executive director of the group, previously worked for Pete Buttigieg’s presidential campaign and was a DFL political director. She said she sees the group in opposition to the Minnesota Parents Alliance.
“Before the School Board Integrity Project, there was not another organization combating the very loud voices who are actually the minority of Minnesotans,” Schuette said. “Right now it feels like we’re the underdogs, but we know we are where the vast majority of Minnesotans are, so we just need to keep having this conversation and really peel back the layers of what’s happening.”
The School Board Integrity Project is not endorsing candidates and doesn’t fund them, but Schuette said they’re focused on training candidates and get-out-the-vote efforts.
“We need to make sure that people understand that if they align with these values, if they want our children to succeed and have the freedom to learn and be themselves, they need to vote,” Schuette said.
*Correction: A previous version of this article misspelled Scott Simmons’ name.
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