Republican-led E-12 Committee ignores schools’ pandemic needs and tightly controls hearing on book and social studies

The E-12 Committee this week debated the use of a book in a south metro school classroom and the revision of the state’s social studies standards that are underway. The hearing was tightly controlled by the committee chair, and members were allowed only one question each and only to the Minnesota Department of Education (MDE) commissioner. However, some Republican members were given wider latitude to ask additional questions.

Important questions ignored at the hearing were how to help students dealing with trauma relating to the pandemic and the killing of George Floyd. Minnesota has one of the highest counselor-to-student ratios in the country; efforts to address that have been ignored by the Republican majority the past five legislative sessions.

Numerous bills by DFL senators have been introduced to address the fallout from the pandemic, including funding for additional school support staff such as counselors, nurses and social workers and an initiative to bring more teachers of color into the classroom. None have been heard so far.

Another question posed about whether the new social studies standards revision should include the events of the January 6 insurrection was roughly brushed aside, and the chair instructed the senator who posed the question to retract it.

The book, “Something Happened in Our Town”, describes a discussion that two families—one white, one black—have about an officer involved shooting of a Black man. The book was placed on the Minnesota Education (MDE) and Health (MDH) departments websites as a resource for schools and parents after the killing of George Floyd. It was never required reading or mandated curriculum, but rather a resource for parents and teachers. Minnesota does not mandate curriculum or books in school classrooms.

The controversy began last Fall when a fourth-grade teacher and former Teacher of the Year in School District 196 used the book with her students. The issue went viral, social media lit up, and the MN Peace and Police Officers Association (MPPOA) reacted and sent a letter to Governor Walz objecting and asking that the resource be removed from the agencies’ websites.  When a DFL member asked why the Teacher of the Year who used the book in the classroom was not allowed to testify or discuss the book, his question was brushed off by the chair and ignored.

The book has received awards from parenting, social studies, and independent publishing groups and has been cited nationally as a resource to help kids talk about racism and trauma. The book also had been used in another District 196 classroom a year earlier by a male teacher, but there was no serious backlash at that time.

The social studies debate heated up after the Standards Review Committee released the first revision draft last fall. A firestorm erupted when the first draft of the benchmarks was released, caused in part by the conservative Center for the American Experiment (CAE) and Alpha News that supported sending a form letter to the MDE Commissioner about the draft, and the Raise our Standards group did the same thing.

The CAE published a piece in the Minneapolis Star Tribune that denounces the committee’s first draft and says the revision committee is not representative of Minnesota because it has too many Indigenous members compared to the state’s population. The groups also seek to eliminate standards benchmarks that focus on historical discrimination practices relating to reconstruction, manifest destiny, and the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments to the U.S. Constitution. Committee members noted that the document served only as a draft and that three additional public hearings were slated in the coming months.