Minnesota school board elections face a coordinated push by critics of Critical Race Theory, vaccines and masks

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Photo by JD Duggan.

Right-wing media and Facebook groups have amplified conspiracies that are trickling into school board elections around the Twin Cities, elevating concerns around equity efforts.

By J.D. Duggan, Freelance Journalist

About 50 people sat in the Mississippi Banquet Room at the Monticello Community Center, situated in an exurb about 40 minutes from Minneapolis.

The room was mostly white, middle-aged, and unmasked. At the door, a young blonde, white woman greeted attendees.

A slide popped up on the projector. “Indoctrination ahead” was written on a school crossing road sign.

The Raise Our Standards Tour has trekked across the state to “talk about the ‘woke’ revolution occurring in our schools,” which have become “ideological battlegrounds,” as the tour’s website states. It’s hosted by Center of the American Experiment, a right-wing thinktank connected to the State Policy Network and various Koch-backed institutions.

Sheila and Kendall Qualls, a Black couple, did most of the talking during an hourlong presentation about supposed indoctrination happening in K-12 schools throughout the state. Critical Race Theory, they say, is the problem. They, along with conservative operations around the country, claim that CRT is teaching white kids that they are the oppressor and students of color are victims.

The hosts then urged attendees to run for local school boards.

“Run for school board,” Qualls said. “Efforts have succeeded across our country to fight this agenda. People have won big on this one issue alone.”

Their talking points have permeated Twin Cities suburbs and Greater Minnesota in recent months. They’ve gathered in community centers and Facebook groups. Many call themselves “patriots” and say American values, like capitalism and liberty, are under attack.

Progressives throughout the state have formed their own groups, too, pushing for equity in schools.

With Minnesota’s social studies standards currently under review, they say schools are bringing politics into the classroom.

CONCERTED EFFORT

Sheila Qualls rolled through the slides until a list appeared on the projector.

Words like equity, anti-racism and ethnic studies are code for Critical Race Theory, she told the small Monticello audience. “These words trick your brain,” she said.

In reality, CRT is a college-level concept that looks at the nation through a hierarchical lens that notes white people at the top of the pyramid. It’s a very specific type of academic study looking at systemic racism, said Sergio Munoz, policy director of Media Matters for America, a progressive research center that monitors conservative media.

CRT is not generally taught in K-12 schools, Munoz said.

And, while the Minnesota Department of Education says CRT isn’t included in its K-12 standards, right-wing groups have conflated the term with a host of equity and inclusion efforts.

“If it seems like I am painting Critical Race Theory as some kind of boogeyman to alarm you, it’s because I am,” Qualls told the audience. “Because it is, and you should be alarmed.”

Munoz said conservative leaders have been attacking civil rights doctrine for decades, and this is just the newest example.

Groups like Minnesotans4Freedom, No Left Turn, TakeCharge MN, various ‘Patriots’ organizations and others have been at the forefront of this messaging locally. Some have written templates for parents to send to school faculty that forbid teachers from asking for a child’s pronouns and to send a lesson plan if any teaching content refers to sexuality, race, gender identity, climate change or equity.

Fox News has amplified CRT concerns, mentioning it at least 900 times in June, a 4000% increase since January, Media Matters reported.

Munoz said it started when right-wing propagandists were looking for a way to bring attention to their causes.

“You throw multiple things against the wall and see what sticks with your audience, and this was one of those ones that stuck,” Munoz said. “Critical race theory, they managed to turn into a catchphrase for pretty much anything that they thought could rile up their right-wing audience.”

Christopher Rufo, a right-wing activist, mentioned CRT on Fox News more than a year ago. Within days, then-President Donald Trump’s budget chief issued a memo to begin the process of ending diversity trainings, and an executive order eventually sealed the deal.

President Joe Biden has since rescinded the order, but the momentum has kept up in the public consciousness.

Fox News has implied that CRT is similar to the Great Replacement conspiracy theory and seeks to replace white people. Media Matters reports that the ultimate goal could be to bar schools from acknowledging systemic racism.

“The only way this is going to go away is when it stops working,” Munoz said. “The actual part that’s trying to change over half a century of civil rights law, that’s trying to overturn race conscious law and policy — that’s not going to go away.”

SCHOOL BOARDS

Pamela Keuler stepped up to the podium at an ISD 196 school board meeting on June 14. She’s been a frequent testifier for months.

She shared about a community group’s efforts to honor the one-year anniversary of the murder of George Floyd, which sparked a global movement for racial equity. When she noted that Floyd was a “criminal high on drugs with a rap sheet that no parent would ever wish for their child,” part of the crowd cheered.

She shared a letter from one parent that said her kid is made to feel bad for being straight, white and Christian. That parent also noted that her daughter is supposed to identify people as they or them, to which Keuler said “seriously? You’ve got to be kidding me.”

Keuler kept speaking even after her mic was cut.

School board meetings used to be small. For Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan Independent School District 196, typically about a dozen people would gather to watch the board make decisions.

Rebecca Gierok was one of those people. She’s been attending meetings for years. She was a candidate this year but dropped out because she didn’t want to dilute the vote against the three right-leaning candidates.

In recent months, with CRT and COVID-19 as the backdrop, she said the Dakota Ridge School gym has been packed with people. Hundreds show up, sometimes pushed into overflow rooms. Some carry signs and groups have shouted back and forth. “That’s not something I’d ever seen before,” Gierok said.

The room was packed, and multiple community members lined up to speak during the June 14 meeting. One testifier started her speech by acknowledging the bodies of 215 Indigenous children found at a Canadian boarding school and acknowledge that “the United States carries and continues that same legacy of genocide.” She held a moment of silence as at least one person in the crowd said “What?” and another booed.

As the community member expressed hope that people will humanize conversations about race, especially white people who do not face direct experiences with racism, some of the crowd started to boo.

“So in May, when the anti-CRT people started popping up, they came with such a consistent message that you knew almost immediately that there was some other driving force immediately behind it,” Gierok said.

To Anna Williams, a Black parent in ISD 196 with years of experience related to equity and inclusion, some of the anti-CRT candidates may have a point when it comes to concerns about transparency and communication in the district.

“ISD 196 has an opportunity to proactively and consistently define what equity, inclusion and diversity means for students, parents and staff,” Williams said. She feels the district needs to continue to improve that clarity.

“So you have a counter-movement that’s defining terms and strategies in a negative light,” Williams said. “Then you have another movement who is trying to do the right thing but is woefully under resourced.”

As the temperature has risen in school board meetings, nearly 70 Minnesota school board members have resigned or retired since August of last year, reports Minnesota Reformer.

In Lakeville’s ISD 194, Cinta Schmitz has stirred controversy. Schmitz helped co-found the group Informed, Fully-Awake Parents, which often circulates information criticizing COVID-19 vaccinations, masks and equity efforts.

Earlier this year, she posted “WE ARE AT WAR!” regarding “CRT, SJW, transgenderism, and every other sick ideology created in hell.”

Schmitz says in a campaign video that, “as a parent,” she has a “vested interest in our school district.” 

Schmitz does not have any children in Lakeville schools  — a consistent pattern among some of the right-wing candidates whose kids are instead enrolled in charter schools or homeschooled.

Equity terms should stay out of schools, her website states. In an interview with Chad “Redbeard the Patriot” Rafdal, a far-right commentator who was part of the U.S. Capitol Insurrection on January 6, she says “It’s so evil” while speaking about the LGBTQ+ community.

After a community member found discrepancies in Schmitz’s campaign finance reporting, she has been called for a hearing for possible campaign finance violations.

The Dakota County Patriots group hosted Schmitz alongside three candidates in ISD 196: Kayla Hauser, Kim Bauer and Curtis Henry. The group’s Facebook group is private and unsearchable without an invite. None of the three candidates responded to requests for an interview.

The ISD 196 candidates have not been as overt in their messaging regarding equity or CRT, though Hauser has mentioned “Fentanyl Floyd” in a now-deleted video that circulated online. Instead, the patriot-endorsed candidates have taken aim at COVID-19 protocols.

In a September candidate forum, Henry said he has no issues with the vaccine, but does not support mandating vaccines for COVID-19 in schools — “and the primary reason is to avoid litigation.” Bauer said that comparing the COVID-19 vaccine to other vaccines isn’t helpful because “not all vaccines prevent illness.” On the vaccine topic, Hauser talks about how every country before 1776 was run by a dictator, implying the vaccine is an infringement of liberty. She adds, “when did we stop considering the mental health of our children?”

The three share similar sentiments about masking in schools, with Bauer saying that her kids go to a school — outside of the district where she is running — where they don’t have to wear a mask all day.

In Bloomington, candidates like Jeffrey Salovich and incumbent Beth Beebe are echoing similar points. Salovich sent out a mailer saying to stop using CRT, and Beebe has claimed that zinc and azithromycin are effective at treating COVID-19.

Responding to the anti-CRT movement

On Saturday, a group of Bloomington Democrats and left-leaning community members gathered before leaving to doorknock throughout the city. Multiple candidates also attended, including Dani Indovino Cawley, who is running for school board because she believes it’s the best place to interrupt generational poverty and stop the school-to-prison pipeline.

She said the community doesn’t feel divided when she’s knocking on doors, but the media  tends to highlight divisions and fear is running high.

She said people are hearing scary stories about CRT, but, “I don’t think that that is what is being taught in schools” and teachers aren’t trying to do those scary things. She noted research showing how ethnic studies can improve graduation rates among students of color by increasing engagement and a sense of self.

Looking forward, Indovino Cawley said she’s interested in how new, more holistic curricula impacts communities.

“I hope that we can have more honest conversation about what curriculum looks like and what kids are learning and how,” Indovino Cawley said, “and then what we want that to look like in the future.”

Gary Dion, a Rosemount resident whose kids graduated from ISD 196 who has been an AVID tutor in the district for seven years, said student-centered learning and culturally responsive teaching are key. AVID is a program that focuses on students’ individual needs. 

He worked with one AVID teacher where they would share videos and have class discussions about micro and macro universes, talking about the expanses of the universe down to the smallest planck units. They would talk with the kids, asking how different concepts made them feel. “Part of what we wanted to stimulate is [that] anything is possible,” he said. Their goal was to inspire students.

So they also talked about changemakers from all sorts of cultural backgrounds who have made an impact on the world, and the students would choose to study a changemaker that might reflect themselves.

He said these studies encouraged critical thinking. They also often required hard conversations that tie to oppression, race and activism — topics that have come under fire. “It’s not just science and math, it’s societal,” Dion said. “And that means you have to recognize what happened and why it happened.”

Dion said collaboration is needed moving forward, regardless of race or political views. But at the same time, he’s concerned about how the election could go.

“I hope that we don’t end up with any disruptors on the school board,” Dion said. “Just because it’s going to make everything harder.”


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