With the governor’s race in a statistical tie between Democrat Gov. Tim Walz and Republican candidate Dr. Scott Jensen, Republicans are employing an outside-the-box strategy to engage and energize Minnesota voters.
Matt Birk is part of that strategy.
I first met Birk in 2014 when I interviewed him about “All-Pro Wisdom,” a leadership book he co-wrote with Rich Chapman. We met again when Jensen introduced Birk as his pick for lieutenant governor.
Birk has an interesting life story and an engaging style, which he’s demonstrating in a series of social media videos titled “Main Street with Matt.”
A St. Paul native and graduate of Cretin-Derham Hall High School, Birk is the son of working-class parents who stressed the importance of education.
Good grades and a knack for football took Birk first to Harvard University then to the NFL.
He played center for the Minnesota Vikings and the Baltimore Ravens. While in Baltimore, he earned a Super Bowl ring and the 2011 Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year award. He also started HIKE, a nonprofit focused on education and character.
Though Minnesotans are concerned about inflation and crime, we’re also concerned about education. I reached out to Birk to ask how a Jensen/Birk administration would address the complex quandary.
Though the world is changing fast and dramatically, Birk says educational institutions aren’t keeping pace. While it used to be important to teach kids how to use the Dewey Decimal System and memorize facts, everyone has a computer in their pockets these days, he says.
We need to adapt.
If they’re leading the state, Jensen and Birk will bring stakeholders to the table, throw everything on it, and have frank conversations about how to fix a multi-billion dollar broken system.
They’d bring different experiences to the table.
For Jensen it would be 10 years on the Waconia school board and four years in the Minnesota Senate.
For Birk it would be creating organizations such as HIKE, and Unity High School, the Catholic school he co-founded in Burnsville that focuses on academics, leadership, character, and service.
They’d search for solutions, not assess blame.
“I don’t want to have a public hanging and call people out,” Birk says. “It doesn’t matter whose fault it is. It’s everyone’s responsibility to do better.”
It’s not just the students who are failing; the system is, too.
Though we spend $20 billion on education, we have an achievement gap and 40 percent of white students don’t read at grade level.
Birk suggests a paradigm shift.
As the parents of eight, he and his wife, Adrianna, have spent a lot of time looking at schools. They all focused on preparing kids for college. While that’s great if you’re built for it, he says, not everyone is.
He’d rather prepare all kids for life, in part by focusing more on character.
He offers an interesting twist on social justice.
“If you’re talking about social justice, I think you have to be talking about parental choice when it comes to schools,” Birk says. “How are you going to tell a family that their student can’t go to a certain school because of economic factors but other students who have the financial means can?”
That would mean families could partner with schools they’re aligned with in terms of values and mission.
He pushes back on arguments that offering school choice would ruin public education.
“The goal isn’t to preserve the institution of public education; it’s to serve students.”
Though he’s concerned about outputs, he’s also concerned about the social and emotional health of students.
They’re “stressed, depressed, exam-obsessed and social media possessed,” Birk says. Bullying occurs 24/7 because kids have access to phones. There’s no respite from it.
Though we need to address those concerns, he draws the line at teaching our youngsters about gender ideology at school. That’s the province of parents.
It’s also a timely topic. Last week, Alpha News reported that District 197, where Birk lives, would be incorporating gender ideology content for kindergarten through fourth-grade students.
He’s not on board.
“I don’t want anybody talking to my kids about those issues except me,” he says.
“Maybe it comes from a place where they want everybody to feel good, but they don’t understand the vast collateral damage this does to everybody when you introduce this stuff to children, especially at such a young age.”
He circles back to school choice.
“If there are people who want this to be taught in schools, then let’s give families the ability and the choice to send their kids to another school that aligns with their values.”
As he and Jensen travel around the state, the changing landscape in education is one of the issues that is driving Minnesotans to step up and become involved in the political process, often for the first time.
Birk is optimistic about their unorthodox campaign.
“We’re going to go back to basics. I believe 2022 is going to be the year the people took the government back from politicians,” he says. “That’s not just a slogan. That’s what I see everywhere I go.”