Leading classroom discussions is part and parcel of a teacher's job — especially for educators dealing with today's middle- and high-school kids. With so much access to information and social-media outlets, young people are raising their voices on issues ranging from race, gender and sexual orientation to school safety and Second Amendment rights. Teachers and administrators bring their personal views to school, of course, but most know their job is not to impose them on their students.
Some Minnesota lawmakers believe that state regulation is needed to ensure that educators toe that line. Two Republican legislators introduced a measure that would require public and charter schools to adopt "academic balance" policies to limit political expression by school staff.
The bill, SF 2487, would prohibit school employees from having students "express specified social or political viewpoints" for academic credit or extracurricular participation. And it would mandate that students have "access to a broad range of serious opinions pertaining to the subjects of study" because "[p]ublic education courses are not for the purpose of political, ideological, religious, or antireligious indoctrination."
While we agree that public education should not indoctrinate students, a state mandate could create more issues than it would solve, and there already are sufficient avenues within local school districts to address such problems when they occur.
Calls for state regulation appear to be largely driven by recent events in the Edina schools. An article published in a conservative magazine alleged that liberal, progressive-leaning staff persecuted students with conservative views and attempted to indoctrinate kids. Although some district parents and school leaders felt the piece had no merit, others said it exposed political favoritism by teachers and students. (A shorter version of the magazine piece was published as a Star Tribune commentary.)
Then a dispute about the Edina Young Conservatives Club further fueled political tensions and prompted club members to pursue a lawsuit claiming the district violated their free-speech rights. That case was recently settled.
The Edina controversy was the primary subject of recent testimony during a Senate hearing on the proposed bill. In our view, the measure could have a negative effect on classroom discussions. It could discourage educators from allowing conversation about controversial topics in class even when it is relevant to the subject matter. Absent an absolute definition of what is or is not controversial, teachers may opt out of allowing discussion — and healthy debate — on many issues.
A state mandate could also encourage more frivolous complaints against teachers, according to the Minnesota School Boards Association and the Association of Metropolitan School Districts. They rightly argue that concerns about academic balance are best handled by local districts. The two organizations say they have received few complaints from metro-area or state districts about academic balance, indicating that it is not a major problem in most schools.
Though most teachers understand they must impart information and facilitate discussion without proselytizing, there can be instances where an educator or other school staff members cross the line. In those cases, students or parents can go to their principal, superintendent or school board with complaints. According to state school board and administrator groups, many districts already have policies that caution staff members against imposing personal views on students.
The Edina case demonstrates that problems can be addressed at the local level without a state rule. The parties involved reached a mutually agreeable settlement. And if parents and students think an individual educator is out of line, they can take their concerns to the state board that issues teacher licenses. Any licensed educator agrees to abide by the teacher code of ethics.
There are plenty of safeguards in place to protect students from indoctrination in Minnesota schools. Lawmakers should reject the academic-balance proposal.