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After a summer of controversy, some Minnesota teachers are anxious about the return of the school year

In small towns like Pequot Lakes, back-to-school nights and open houses often feel like family reunions. But teachers worry this year might be different.

Angry parents and community members protesting diversity initiatives during a Loudoun County School Board meeting in Ashburn, Virginia.
Angry parents and community members protesting diversity initiatives during a Loudoun County School Board meeting in Ashburn, Virginia.
REUTERS/Evelyn Hockstein

In small towns like Pequot Lakes, back-to-school nights and open houses often feel like family reunions. It’s a day that some teachers say sets the tone for the rest of the year. And one that educators excitedly prepare for weeks in advance, says Karen Rubado, who teaches in the district and is a facilitator for the equity and diversity program SEED (seeking educational equity and diversity).

But she isn’t so sure that this year’s open houses will be the same.

It’s one of our favorite days of the year, but I think in the back of many teachers’ minds, there’s anxiety that a few parents will choose that night to address concerns,” Rubado said.

Rubado is specifically referring to questions regarding critical race theory. 

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It’s a topic that’s become a fixation across the country and specifically in some rural counties. School board meetings, which often experience a lull in the summer, have experienced a surge in attendance throughout the state. Rubado, who has taught in Pequot Lakes for 29 years and regularly attended school board meetings over the years, says that she has never seen meetings as packed as the ones she attended in the past few months, or as heated. 

The district itself is unique for having a specific catalyst to the controversy when some parents and community members responded with anger to a video celebrating rural diversity initiatives featuring the school district’s superintendent, resulting in a school resource officer calling for backup at one especially contentious school board meeting.

Being singled out

But the school board meetings are just the tip of the iceberg for teachers who fear a witch hunt. 

In Pequot Lakes, community members have made data requests for a list of teachers who received equity training.

“They wanted to know who received training because they wanted to make sure their kids didn’t have those teachers,” Rubado said.

Other parent groups in the state have circulated forms with templates for students to hand to teachers on the first day of school. 

“They’re sending forms asking teachers to see their lesson plans every week, asking to review every book, every worksite, every chapter, they’re demanding and asking for everything,” said Denise Specht, the president of Education Minnesota. “And if there is something that they object to, they plan on taking on the teacher, talking to the principal and people in the district.”

Specht says the scrutiny has left some teachers questioning their curriculum.

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“Some of them are so afraid and wondering can I even read this book out loud to my kindergartners? You know, will this result in a parent coming in and being offended by that?” Rubado said.

Denise Specht
Denise Specht
And while teachers have always experienced pushback toward curriculum to some extent, Specht says some educators have been on the receiving end of an unprecedented level of harassment.

Specht, who has been meeting with local union leaders once a  month to discuss anti-racist initiatives, says that one leader who is the equity teacher in her school district needed a police escort at a school board meeting after receiving threats.

Facing resistance from school boards

In some counties, teachers have even faced opposition from school boards. 

One teacher from Anoka County, who requested anonymity in fear of retaliation, says educators in his county who have pushed for equity efforts have left school board meetings in tears while others were stonewalled. 

“We had one educator attend the last meeting and walk out in the middle of it and that was one of our few educators of color. And all he wanted to do was say, hey, ‘We need to do work here,’ but they wouldn’t listen to him,” the teacher said.

The resistance from the school board has emboldened members of the community and left educators wary of using social media.

“We have educators that are afraid to engage in social media, are afraid of how if they present on a topic that a parent’s going to come and run them out of town,” the teacher said.”We had a social media post that said, ‘I hope anybody who agrees with this stuff will post on here so that we can get rid of you in two years.”

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Burnout and resignation

The continued pressure has resulted in teachers and board members resigning in some counties. In St. Francis Public Schools, four teachers resigned at the end of the school year over disagreements with the board over equity initiatives, and Greg Abbott, the director of communications at the Minnesota School Board Association, says across the state a total of 52 school board members have resigned since last August. A normal year sees 12-15 resignations.

Greg Abbott
Greg Abbott
We are losing really good people because political think tank groups want to politicize everything and now have their eyes on politicizing public schools,” Abbott said. 

And the resignations will cost districts, Abbott said. 

“Most districts have even-year elections, which means if someone resigns in an odd year, the district has to pay for a special election to fill the position. At an average of $5,000 to $10,000 per election,” Abbott said. “It is very costly. That money to pay for these special elections comes out of the district’s classroom funds – the state does not reimburse schools for these special elections.”

A sustained dialogue

Specht says that while schools and teachers have been in the spotlight for controversial topics before, she has never seen a dialogue sustained for this long.

Some would credit the enduring nature of the conversation surrounding critical race theory to conservative think tanks across the country, and in Minnesota, to the Center of the American Experiment. In June, the organization launched a 16-city tour across the state, called the “Raise Our Standards Tour,” with a mission, according to its website, to discuss the “‘woke’ revolution occurring in our schools.”

It is an attack on public education in general. One could view this as a way to ultimately privatize public education,” Specht said. “It’s really undermining the trust of public schools and people are believing it.” 

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Catrin Wigfall, a policy fellow at the organization, says the tour was planned in response to an uptick in emails and calls expressing concern about the curriculum in schools. 

Reports of the organization’s presentation show a conflation of critical race theory with equity and diversity efforts in general. Some academics have taken to local papers to dispel misconceptions spread at the events.  

In Facebook groups, controversial topics usually run their course. But, says the Anoka County teacher,  every time the dialogue surrounding critical race theory seems to wane in the county’s parent groups, someone will create a post to instigate discussions again. 

“It’s almost like people wait about a week and then post something new on Facebook that stirs everybody up just in time to get them to show up to the school board. Like we already talked about this topic. This topic’s been settled and then it’s back up again.”

Looking forward

Still, both Rubado and the Anoka County teacher are determined to continue serving students and helping the community move forward past the summer’s tensions.

There’s a handful of us that are left, that haven’t left the district and we just know there’s work to do and we’re not going to stop the work because of the school board,” the Anoka County teacher said. “We’ll continue to bring forward the issues that need to be brought forward so that kids can feel safe in their schools and can feel heard.”

Rubado says that teachers in Pequot Lakes will also continue to fight for equity initiatives.

“We’re preparing our students to live in a diverse world and interact with everybody,” Rubado said. “While we’re not very racially diverse, we want our students to understand diverse perspectives and learn how to think critically.”

And while Rubado hopes the school year will provide the community with a fresh start with the opportunity for dialogue, she says above all, providing a quality education to students comes first.