Listen: PKG: Minnesota school board races (Shockman)

MPR’s Elizabeth Shockman reports on how some Minnesota school board races have turned into a philosophical tug of war — a war that involves organized parent groups, teacher unions, networks of political donors, and families who fear school equity efforts are in jeopardy.

This story is part of a series produced with support from the Education Writers Association Reporting Fellowship program.


2023 MNSPJ Page One Award, third place in Politics/government reporting category


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SPEAKER: Well, the election is just days away, and Minnesota school board races have been unusually contentious this year. Officials say there are more people running for open seats than in years past. According to education reporter Elizabeth Shockman, that's because of new interest from well-funded, right-wing groups in local Minnesota school board elections.

ELIZABETH SHOCKMAN: There are signs everywhere that this year's school board race in the Prior Lake Savage School District is more intense than contests held in past years. Campaign placards bearing the name of eight school board candidates vying for four seats have sprung up at intersections and edges of cornfields throughout the community. Prior Lake Savage is not alone.

GREG ABBOTT: This year, we've had a lot more people running than usual.

ELIZABETH SHOCKMAN: That's Greg Abbott, Director of Communications for the Minnesota School Boards Association. In some districts, he says, the competition for open seats is in the double digits. And the amount of money being spent on school board races this year has skyrocketed. Abbott expects the number of candidates submitting campaign finance reports to double compared to two years ago.

GREG ABBOTT: In a way, it's a good sign that more people are interested. We just hope that they're serving because they want to help all students succeed, not out of politics or some false reason.

ELIZABETH SHOCKMAN: In this year's November elections, more than 1,000 school board seats will be on the ballot, and more than 1,600 people are running to fill them. The situation in Prior Lake Savage is just one example of Minnesota's school board races that have turned into a philosophical tug of war, a war that in some cases is backed by a well-funded network of political donors. In Prior Lake, much of the school board debate has centered on racism and equity. This comes a year after a series of racist incidents targeting Black students in the district.

Four of the eight candidates running for Prior Lake's open school board seats have received endorsements from both a local group, Lakers for Change, and a statewide group, Minnesota Parents Alliance, both of which question the value and intention of school equity initiatives. Rachel Carlson, who is white, has a ninth grade student who attends classes at Prior Lake High School. She doesn't want teachers pointing out systemic racism or implicit bias in classroom lessons.

RACHEL CARLSON: Especially with children that don't think things through 100% when there's things like that, it's like, don't push the red button for kids. I mean, don't press the red button. And you have this giant red button there every day.

ELIZABETH SHOCKMAN: Carlson supports the four candidates the Lakers for Change group has endorsed, and she's helped the group identify candidates to run for board seats. She started paying attention to board politics during the pandemic, when she grew concerned about closed school buildings and masking. She wants someone on the board who's supportive of her and other like-minded parents views.

The Lakers for Change and Lakers for Liberty groups and at least one board candidate have coordinated with and received endorsements and training from the newly formed Minnesota Parents Alliance. The alliance was founded in part by Christine Trooien, a mother from Mound, Minnesota. Its three-person board also includes the chair of the Center of the American Experiment, a think tank that's part of the conservative Koch-funded State Policy Network. Bill Walsh is the Center of the American Experiment's Communications Director.

BILL WALSH: I would consider us a partner with MPA. We were kind of there at the founding, let's say. Let's put it that way. [LAUGHS] And, you know, a lot of people felt there was a need for a C4, a political organization to help candidates from the conservative side.

ELIZABETH SHOCKMAN: The MPA or Minnesota Parents Alliance, has endorsed more than 100 candidates to run in school board races across the state. Their candidates are people Troyan identified by reaching out to dozens of Facebook groups, including Prior Lake's own Lakers for Liberty group. For some experts, the way in which the center is operating, its creation, and ongoing involvement in the alliance points to a larger and familiar strategy.

ISAAC KAMOLA: What we're seeing in the school boards and in groups like Center for the American Experiment are just one front in this broader, incredibly well-funded, and incredibly integrated, incredibly strategic, long-term strategy of fundamentally transforming society to correspond with their libertarian ideas.

ELIZABETH SHOCKMAN: That's Isaac Kamola, Associate Professor of Political Science at Trinity College. Kamola says the parents and the school board candidates involved in the Facebook groups or the alliance might not know that their advocacy on school issues is being manipulated in service of a variety of right-wing political operatives and plutocratic donors. The goal of the donors, Kamola says, is not to help parents or kids, but to help a larger political movement, which seeks to stoke parent fear about K through 12 schools in a longer term effort to discredit and dismantle public education.

However, alliance co-founder Christine Trooien says her group's goal is to, quote, "Strengthen our public schools." And she has said the alliance provides a vital challenge to the State Teachers Union Education Minnesota. Prior Lake's local teacher union has endorsed the other four Prior Lake Savage candidates, those who haven't worked with the Minnesota Parents Alliance. It's the second time in history the union has felt the need to make an endorsement.

Local Minnesota teacher unions have endorsed school board candidates for decades. But this year, Education Minnesota President Denise Specht says, the state union has put together a centralized voter guide of endorsed candidates. It's something they've never felt the need to do. Usually, there are only about 10 unions in the entire state that endorse candidates. This year, however, the number of local unions making endorsements is in the dozens.

DENISE SPECHT: This year is an unprecedented year. We are seeing more local unions getting involved in school board races than we have ever seen in the past. There are candidates with a national agenda. That

ELIZABETH SHOCKMAN: National agenda suspect includes hostility to unions and efforts to quash discussions of racism and equity work, work many teachers in Minnesota want to continue. Education Minnesota is involved in local elections in other ways as well. It provides sample questionnaires for local unions to use when making endorsement decisions. And it puts money from member dues into PACs that can be used by local unions for school board or levy campaigns.

In Prior Lake this year, teacher union representatives used union PAC money to get information on endorsed candidates out by mail or phone banking to local residents. There are many parents in Prior Lake who are throwing their support behind the union-endorsed candidates. For Nneka Sederstrom who is African-American, and her husband Charlie, who is white equity in the Prior Lake schools where they have a seven-year-old enrolled, is one of their main priorities.

They love their suburban district for its good schools, its proximity to the city, its sense of community. But they're also familiar with the discipline disparities in Minnesota schools that vary widely depending on a student's race. They know about the state's long-standing, close to worst in the nation education inequalities that favor white students over students of color. And they're concerned about racism affecting students in Prior Lake. Sederstrom says she and her husband worry about the ways in which conservative parents and school board candidates discuss the district's equity work.

NNEKA SEDERSTROM: What it means to me when I hear these parents going off on equity being bad and all these other elements that they go to, it makes me feel like what they're saying to me is they don't want me and they don't want my family in the school system because what they care about is ensuring that their children continue to excel. And my child has to work against that odds, those odds, and not have the same opportunity for excelling.

ELIZABETH SHOCKMAN: For the Sederstroms, the equity work that's begun in Prior Lake will continue regardless of who wins this year's school board elections. They say, there's no fighting a current that's already moving. Elizabeth Shockman, NPR news, Prior Lake.

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