An article alleging political “indoctrination” in the Edina School District has become one of the central topics of this year’s crowded school board race.
The article was published in Thinking Minnesota, a magazine produced by the Center of the American Experiment, a conservative think tank, and sent to all households in Edina. Its author, Katherine Kersten, an Edina resident and senior fellow at the center, said an effort to teach racial equity and “indoctrinate students in left-wing political orthodoxies” has threatened the district’s quality of education.
The article links recent test results with the district’s “All for All” equity plan, which aims to “recruit, hire and retain high-quality, racially conscious teachers and administrators,” among other goals. It also cites anonymous concerns from parents over perceived political leanings of some teachers.
Parents and school board candidates have reacted to the article on social media, and it was the focus of a candidate forum Monday.
Twelve candidates are vying for four seats, a majority of the board. They include two incumbents, David Goldstein and Lisa O’Brien.
Nearly all have posted statements on Facebook about the article, most disapproving, saying it cherry-picks data, provides little context, and includes inaccuracies about school curriculum. Others said it shines a light on important worries from parents.
“There are valid voices that are concerned about our curriculum and our test scores, and there are valid voices that are concerned about our diversity and equity,” candidate Matthew Fox said at the forum. “I believe strongly in diversity, equity and that globalization makes us a stronger district and a stronger leader in the state.”
Candidate Gabe Aderhold said the district’s emphasis on race and diversity is an “incredibly divisive issue in our community,” but that “talking about equity and inclusion doesn’t come at the expense of academic excellence — it helps define it.”
O’Brien said the board has responded to parental concerns for months. “We’ve been talking about how all students need to have the ability ... to voice their concerns,” she said at the forum. “Their free speech rights are paramount.”
Goldstein blasted the article on Facebook.
“The story is clearly being circulated with an intention to divide our community,” he wrote Oct. 3. “It is misleading throughout and includes many falsehoods. It also uses unnecessarily inflammatory language and is, in general, a mean spirited piece of work.”
Kersten, a former Star Tribune columnist, said she was not aware of the school board race while writing the article.
“There is nothing in there that talks about the importance of this election,” she said.
Edina High School has seen a decline in Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment math scores in the past few years, according to the state Department of Education. Math performance dropped from 81 percent proficiency in 2013 to 66 percent proficiency in 2017.
But overall the district remains consistently above the statewide average in testing. Both math and reading scores are about 20 percentage points higher in Edina than in the rest of the state.
Kersten said any decline should be addressed by the district. “If we are concerned about the falling test scores, we need to look carefully at where this might come from.”
While she does not mention the election in the piece, she does point to a levy referendum also on the November ballot that looks to renew and increase local funding for the district; the current $13 million operational levy expires at the end of the school year.
As a response to Kersten’s article, the school district prepared to mail a document to families listing its academic achievements, including statistics on college preparedness exams.
“Sustaining this quality and reputation into the future can only be achieved by evolving to meet the diverse needs of students who will live and work in a world that is constantly changing,” it says.
As a tax-exempt nonprofit, the Center of the American Experiment cannot participate in political campaigning. “We don’t do politics, we do policy,” said center president John Hinderaker.
Some parents said the center crossed the line by sending the magazine to all Edina homes. Some also pointed to a dinner hosted by Republicans in September where Hinderaker spoke on the theme: “Politics in Edina School System — Education or Indoctrination?”
At least two school board candidates also spoke at the event. School board elections are officially nonpartisan.
Emily Christie, who has a child in an Edina elementary school, felt the article’s timing would affect the levy vote, possibly costing the district.
“My biggest concern is that they’re going to wind up making people angry at the school district ... and then voting not to support the levy,” she said.
Edina parent Orlando Flores said it is important for candidates to discuss the political ideologies in schools. He disapproved of teachers showing their political leanings during the 2016 presidential election.
“We need to depoliticize the schools and create an environment of openness,” he said.
Flores said he has never voted in a school board race, but, “I will definitely pay attention to this one.”