Most Minnesotans likely know that taxes and abortion are major topics of debate at the State Capitol this session. But it’s a good bet fewer know that, out of the public eye, our K-12 education system is about to be transformed, almost beyond recognition.
Under the radar, a package of bills is ramming through sweeping changes that will reorient our public schools around a new paradigm — subordinating academic basics to an obsessive, politicized preoccupation with race and social justice activism.
“Critical Social Justice” ideology (CSJ) — the vehicle for manipulating our young people into adopting this worldview — is laced strategically through a variety of bills, including “ethnic studies” (HF 1502), “Teachers of Color” (HF 320) and now the House and Senate omnibus education bills (HF 2497/SF 2684).
Taken together, this legislation will inject reductive, racialized thinking into every classroom in Minnesota’s approximately 500 school districts and charter schools; change the fundamental mechanics of education in our state; and give the Minnesota Department of Education (MDE) and the Professional Educator Licensing and Standards Board (PELSB) broad new powers that amount to an end-run around our state’s hallowed tradition of local control.
Consider what awaits your kindergartner in the brave new world just over the horizon. The House Omnibus Education bill requires that, going forward, all curriculum and instruction in our state’s K-12 public schools will be “antiracist.”
Does “antiracism” have its common-sense meaning: A belief that it’s wrong to treat people differently because of their race? Far from it. The startling new definition is buried in the 316-page bill: “‘Antiracist’ means actively working to eliminate racism in all forms so that power and resources are redistributed and shared equitably among racial groups.”
If this bill passes, starting in 2024, every school district would be required to review and revise all classroom materials — in every subject, including math and science — to inject this full-throated call to change our political and economic system.
Wait a minute, you may think: “This can’t be true. If it were, I would have heard about it.”
You haven’t heard, most likely, because lack of transparency has characterized this crusade since 2019, when the activist Minnesota Ethnic Studies Coalition (MESC) was formed. MESC defines its mission as changing curricula in order to “center” (i.e., shift the instructional focus to) groups “erased from mainstream curricula due to persistent racism, patriarchy, xenophobia, and linguistic imperialism.”
In 2020-21, MESC members dominated the Education Department-appointed committee that rewrote our state’s social studies standards, which currently await final rule-making approval. Now that the DFL has a governing trifecta, it’s moving aggressively to embed racialized ideology so comprehensively throughout the state’s K-12 system that it will be difficult to reverse.
Today at the Capitol, we see lack of transparency on three fronts.
First, this extremist campaign advances under cover of code words — like “antiracist” and “culturally sustaining” — that sound appealing, and so deflect scrutiny.
Second, provisions that inject CSJ are woven so subtly through so many bills that it takes a skilled legislative analyst to identify and track the complex net they weave.
For example, the proposed legislation requires school principals to practice “culturally responsive” leadership. In reality, these two innocuous-sounding words import a whole raft of race-based assumptions that shrink and redefine principals’ job responsibilities to conform to an ideologically loaded template.
In another tactic, the legislation engineers top-down, far-reaching change by adding race-based mandates and reporting requirements to Minnesota’s World’s Best Workforce law, which governs the mechanics of school districts’ strategic planning and curricular review and revision.
Finally, this whole campaign has been pushed through at breakneck speed, using slickly packaged PR-type testimony and often omitting examination of the bills’ actual text.
Exhibit A is Rep. Samantha Sencer-Mura’s “ethnic studies” bill, HF 1502. Ethnic studies, as defined in this bill, is a primary vehicle for injecting CSJ ideology into K-12 classrooms.
At its rally for ethnic studies at the Capitol on Feb. 27, the Minnesota Ethnic Studies Coalition touted the bill as “an unequaled opportunity to bridge the ethnic and cultural divide” by enhancing students’ “sense of belonging.”
In reality, however, ethnic studies of this kind is highly divisive. The House Omnibus bill defines it as analyzing how “race and racism,” as “powerful social, cultural and political forces,” influence “the stratification of other groups,” including “gender, class, disability, sexuality, religion and legal status.”
We know how ethnic studies of this “liberated” variety will play out in the classroom. In the St. Paul Public Schools (SPPS), all 10th-graders are required to take a critical ethnic studies course for the first time this year. Brian Lozenski, a Macalester College professor and MESC “organizer” who testified for HF 1502, is affiliated with the district’s Ethnic Studies Steering Committee, according to SPPS’s website.
The St. Paul ethnic studies program makes “resistance” one of its “core principles.” Specifically, students are exhorted to “Resist all systems of oppressive power rooted in racism through collective action and change,” according to the SPPS website. Related artwork features a protest sign that reads “Abolish prisons.”
Ethnic studies of this kind will not prepare students for informed citizenship, but for mob action.
Some St. Paul students and parents already lament growing disrespect for teachers, disorderly classrooms and unsafe hallways. What will happen in coming years as ethnic studies further delegitimizes authority there?
St. Paul’s critical ethnic studies program has been promoted as a statewide model, and we can expect to see versions of it in school districts from Albert Lea to International Falls. The House Omnibus Education bill includes a “liberated” definition of ethnic studies to which school districts must conform. In addition, it awards MESC — by name — a central role in an MDE-appointed working group, whose broad powers include recommending curricula and training resources, as well as developing ethnic studies standards.
Minnesotans, what’s unfolding at our Capitol is seismic change at lightning speed. Yet incredibly, legislative leaders are bypassing public debate. Do Minnesota’s parents, citizens and elected officials really want Critical Social Justice ideology to be hardwired into our public K-12 system? No one has asked them.
Most lawmakers, of both parties, likely have little idea of what’s underway. We still have time to change course and craft a fruitful outcome. But that will require bipartisan cooperation and moral courage.
This piece originally appeared in the Star Tribune. For more information, go to the Bait and Switch page on ethnic studies.
Katherine Kersten, a writer and attorney, is a Senior Policy Fellow at Center of the American Experiment. She served as a Metro columnist for the Star Tribune (Minneapolis) from 2005 to 2008 and as an opinion columnist for the paper for 15 years between 1996 and 2013. She was a founding director of the Center and served as its chair from 1996 to 1998.