Capitol Comments: Bills, both non-controversial and controversial, moving forward

Published 8:45 pm Friday, March 24, 2023

Capitol Comments by Peggy Bennett

As a former teacher and member of both education committees in the Minnesota House, K-12 Education is a legislative topic that is very important to me. As our second legislative deadline arrived on March 24, I wanted to share with you a special education bill I’ve authored that’s moving through the education committees, as well as some concerning proposals.

Peggy Bennett

I am very happy to share with you that my special education teacher pipeline grant program bill received a second hearing, this time in the Education Finance Committee. As I mentioned a few weeks ago, this legislation would provide grants to schools throughout the state that desire to partner with teacher preparation programs to help finance and “grow” local paraprofessionals, other unlicensed staff, and tier 1 and 2 teachers to become fully licensed special education teachers. This is a bill that came from local input and worked with area schools to write. I am delighted to see this legislation continue movement through the committee process, and also that it now has bipartisan support.

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Unfortunately, there have also been a number of education bills working their way through our House education committees that concern me greatly. They include repeat Democrat-only authored bills which also saw hearings two years ago in the Minnesota Legislature but did not make it into law.

The first bill is an ethnic studies requirement for our schoolchildren and schools. This legislation would mandate that all students successfully complete a semester-long “ethnic studies” course to graduate from high school. It also requires that ethnic studies must be taught in elementary, middle, and charter schools. The only problem is, this is not the “ethnic studies” that most people think of when they hear this term.

When most of us think about ethnic studies, we think about studying and learning about the differences and similarities of other cultures, their histories, perspectives, etc. – and that would include serious discussions about the evils of racism.

I think all of us would agree that ethnic studies like this is important to having healthy relationships with our neighbors, both here in Minnesota and throughout the world. This is already required instruction in our current Minnesota social studies standards.

The ethnic studies referred to in this bill, however, has a very different definition: “Ethnic studies analyzes the ways in which race and racism have been and continue to be powerful social, cultural, and political forces, and the connection of race to other groups of stratification, including gender, class, sexuality and legal status.”

This ethnic studies bill would also require the Department of Education to hire “dedicated ethnic studies staff” who’s job in part would be to monitor schools and ensure compliance, as well as develop “a model ethnic studies curriculum” for school districts to use. The model curriculum must also include “a power, race, class, and gender analysis” and “an intersectional analysis of climate, health, food, housing, education and policy.”

This bill is ethnic studies on overdrive and seems designed to push a particular political ideology into the classroom rather than teaching understanding of other peoples and cultures.

A second bill heard this week would require “climate justice” instruction for all students in grades 1 – 12. According to the bill, “climate justice means a framework that puts people first and views the effects of climate change as interconnected with forms of oppression connecting climate change to social and economic justice issues.”

I am all for teaching our children about taking good care of our environment. Again, most people would agree with that. However, this bill goes over the top. It goes beyond teaching about environmental care, or even climate change, and teaches about political ideals like “social justice” and climate change interconnected “forms of oppression.” These are political ideologies that do not belong in the classroom.

Forcing politically charged mandates like these on Minnesota schools concerns me because they will end up pitting parents against teachers and school boards. Parents, teachers, and school boards don’t want, nor do they need, this added tension in our schools.

I hear from many teachers. They don’t want to be social justice warriors or political activists; they simply want to teach their students. We need to stop pitting teachers against parents. Mandates like these are one reason we’re losing so many teachers.

My opinion: With half of our students in Minnesota below level in both reading and math, our main focus in the Legislature and in our schools should be on improving these core academic subjects — not on gobbling up precious classroom time teaching political ideologies to our children. I have seen very few bills heard this year with this academic focus, and that concerns me greatly too.

Peggy Bennett, R-Albert Lea, is the District 23A representative.