Bennett: Don’t politicize ethnic studies in schools

Published 9:02 am Friday, March 24, 2023

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In a provision involving an ethnic studies component in an education omnibus bill, students at both public and charter schools would be required to complete a semester-long ethnic studies course to graduate high school.

Peggy Bennett

While District 23A Rep. Peggy Bennett is fine with that, there’s another component of the bill she said she thinks was unnecessary.

Under the provision, ethnic studies would examine the way race and racism are and continue to be social, cultural and political forces, and the new curriculum would look at the connection between race and social stratification.

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The bill would also mandate the Minnesota Department of Education hire staff whose job would be to look at schools to ensure compliance and help develop an ethnic studies curriculum for school districts.

“That’s something that schools should be able to do, but to mandate [it] at all schools is an issue for me,” said Rep. District 23A Peggy Bennett.

For Bennett, ethnic studies meant studying other cultures as well as their histories and perspectives, and talking about racism, a mandate in the state’s social studies standards. She also hadn’t met a person who didn’t want ethnic studies taught that way.

What she didn’t want was politicizing ethnic studies or pushing certain viewpoints. She felt politics did not belong in schools.

Another concern was the bill would pit parents against school boards, teachers and administrators who didn’t have a choice in what they taught. She also worried it would narrow students’ world views and teach skin color determined success.

“We actually heard from some of them, … and these were people of color coming to speak who were very much against this approach, this political approach to ethnic studies,” she said. “They said things like, “This politicizes the teaching of ethnic and cultural studies.”

Instead, she argued the bill should return to committee and remove politically divisive points such as structural racism and gender and class equality. She also worried the legislation took things into “overdrive.”

At the same time, she acknowledged balanced perspectives were needed and said she thought today’s textbooks were doing better at providing those other perspectives.

She argued portions of the proposed bill were already being taught at some schools, and St. Paul Public Schools already required completion of an ethnic studies course for graduation.

District 49A Rep. Laurie Pryor, DFL-Minnetonka, authored the omnibus bill.

Bennett also opposed a climate justice bill.

The legislation would introduce climate justice, a term that looks at the effects of climate change and its connection with “forms of oppression” and connected climate change to social and economic justice issues. It would be a requirement for all students from first through 12th grade.

“It’s forcing politically-charged mandates onto Minnesota schools,” she said.

And while she agreed instruction on environmental stewardship was important, she said she thought this was political overkill and taught a certain ideology.

While not mandating it, she said she thought the idea of environmental care could be encouraged in schools, whether by helping students understand the importance of recycling and disposal of trash in the correct ways (i.e. not throwing wrappers on the side of the road) that are universally agreed on.

“Again, these are more political ideas now and theories and things like that then they’re again pitting parents — who aren’t going to want this social justice type education because then it becomes white people against black people or native people against whoever — it becomes that and not everybody agrees with that’s how children should be taught,” she said.

Instead, she said she thinks local schools and school districts should address the ideas of climate justice as they saw appropriate rather than making it a state mandate.

Rep. Larry Kraft, DFL-St. Louis Park, authored the climate justice bill.