Victoria Mayor Tom Funk is making opposition to school equity programs a major issue in his campaign for the state Senate, the second time in a year that the controversial topic has found its way into Carver County politics.
Funk has denounced equity programs on his website, in a letter to local papers and before the Victoria City Council. He accuses the programs, such as those of the Eastern Carver County school district, of aiming to “indoctrinate” students to a “liberal radical agenda” that “degrades all white students … forcing them to apologize for their skin color and their race.”
His opponent in Tuesday’s Republican Party primary, Chanhassen City Council Member Julia Coleman, hasn’t made equity programs part of her campaign. Her definition of equity, she said, is giving children “the attention and resources that they need in order to be proficient in each topic.”
The incumbent Republican senator Funk and Coleman each hope to succeed in District 47, Scott Jensen of Chaska, said a new senator would have limited impact on a district’s programs. Jensen is backing Coleman.
The winner of the Republican primary this November will face either Bala Chintaginjala of Chanhassen, an IT worker, or Addie Miller of Watertown, a legislative administrator, who are squaring off in the DFL primary.
The Eastern Carver County district expanded its equity programs last year after parents complained of racist incidents in the schools. A video posted last fall featuring two conservative activists described the programs as harmful to children and linked them to support for the district’s November referendum, despite district denials of a connection. The video may have helped defeat part of the referendum, leading to teacher layoffs and other budget cuts.
In an e-mail, Superintendent Lisa Sayles-Adams defined equity as serving “every child, every day, and mak[ing] sure they have the supports and resources they need to be successful, regardless of circumstance.”
Coleman pointed out that she has met with school board members and Funk has not. Funk said he has been too busy campaigning to meet with board members but has scheduled a meeting with Sayles-Adams after Tuesday.
A video posted on Funk’s website shows images of burning buildings and rioting that followed George Floyd’s death in May. “We’ve now seen the ramifications of this [equity] agenda in the streets firsthand,” Funk says in a voice-over on the video.
The overtones in Funk’s campaign have triggered an angry backlash among some residents. Parents, teachers and school board members took turns last week at a Victoria City Council meeting criticizing Funk’s messaging as “racist propaganda,” “name calling,” “fear mongering” and damaging to an increasingly diverse community.
Among those speaking was Lisa Rock, a resident who said she was a Republican who ordinarily would represent Funk’s base. But equity supporters aren’t limited to “the liberal left,” she said.
“We are a large group of community members who are tired of hearing you spout off racist propaganda, trash our school district and making our community look ignorant,” she said. “We are disgusted with the way you have divided our community … and irate that you have made some of our friends feel unwelcome.”
An early supporter of Funk, John Brownlee, launched a “Say No to Funk” campaign when he felt the mayor’s campaign featured “fear and racial division as central themes,” he said. Brownlee two weeks ago resigned his seat on the Victoria Planning Commission in protest, urging that it be filled by a person of color.
In an interview Friday, Funk said he has heard from supporters who agree with his views on equity but are afraid to speak publicly. Asked about those views, Funk said they’re encapsulated in the video on his website and the letter he sent to local papers. He added that he opposes programs that “focus on identity politics and social engineering.”
“Schools should focus on academics,” he said. “I think [equity supporters] are trying to revise our history to serve their political purposes of today.”
Jensen said the Legislature has considered pro-equity strategies to help narrow the achievement gap between white students and students of color. It was unlikely, he said, that “a freshman senator’s going to come in and turn the world upside down and say, ‘OK, a new sheriff’s in town.’ ” Efforts to abolish equity programs “would have an exceedingly difficult time getting any traction,” he said.