Recent controversy within the Edina School District was the subject of extended testimony during a Senate hearing on a bill aiming to limit political expression in state schools.
The bill, co-sponsored by two Republican senators, made its first stop at the E-12 Policy Committee on Thursday. It was passed on to the Education Finance Committee on a 5-3 vote.
The measure would require public and charter schools to pass an “academic balance” policy prohibiting school employees from having students “express specified social or political viewpoints” for academic credit or extracurricular participation.
The policy would mandate that students have “access to a broad range of serious opinions pertaining to the subjects of study” and prohibit discrimination based on a student’s personal beliefs.
“Public education courses are not for the purpose of political, ideological, religious, or antireligious indoctrination,” the bill language reads.
Lastly, it would “require caution from classroom teachers when expressing personal views in the classroom and prohibit the introduction of controversial matters without a relationship to the subject taught.”
Sen. Carla Nelson, R-Rochester, one of the bill’s authors, said it would keep schools focused on their academic curriculum and have anything that is not fact be presented “in a balanced way.”
“It is absolutely imperative ... that we do not let our public education system fall into what is happening to the rest of our society, which is so much anger,” Nelson said.
She held up Edina Schools and its well-publicized issues as a case example of why she believes the bill is necessary.
An article published in a conservative magazine alleging “indoctrination and persecution” in the district was sent to all Edina households last year. Although many parents and school board members dismissed the piece for providing little context and cherry-picking data, some said it shined a light on political favoritism by teachers and students at schools.
Disparaging comments made by some members of the Edina Young Conservatives Club following a Veterans Day assembly at the high school further heightened tensions in the district. Club members later raised a federal lawsuit claiming the district violated their free-speech rights. That case was settled last week.
Two Edina High students and plaintiffs in the lawsuit testified in support of the bill Thursday, claiming that the district has become highly partisan.
“The environment at school is so political,” student Tatum Buyse said during her testimony. “Everything is viewed as comparing white versus black, when all I want to do is be a high-schooler.”
Most testified in opposition to the bill, saying it micromanages daily school activity and would prevent teachers from speaking candidly about controversial topics.
“I believe this legislation is yet another attempt to instill fear in teachers,” said Tim Klobuchar, an English teacher at Edina High.
Destiny Washington, a senior at the high school, said she has had many honest conversations with teachers and students and that she has never been “forced to believe something.”
“The reality is, we live in a world with a troubling history,” she said. “How far will we restrict our teachers?”
Sen. Susan Kent, DFL-Woodbury, who sits on the committee, said the bill could keep teachers from wanting to work in Minnesota. “Why are we creating yet another reason to dissuade very talented, capable, educated people from serving our kids when we need them so badly?”
“I think this bill does not take us in the right direction,” she added.