Becker schools table policy that would exclude 'inherently divisive' content

Board seeks legal review of policy which some teachers say would make their jobs harder

A room of people listen to a person speaking at a podium
Yolanda Denson-Byers, pastor at Faith Lutheran Church in Becker, addresses Becker school board members and superintendent on Monday.
Screenshot of Becker School Board feed

The Becker district school board opened its regular meeting Monday with a vote to table discussion of a draft policy that has been met with resistance from community members as well as state organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota and Education Minnesota, the statewide teachers union.

Board members agreed unanimously to table the draft policy in order to allow for a legal review of the proposal.

Policy 471 — “Unbiased, Fair and Equitable Treatment on all School Campuses and any School Sponsored Activities” — had been scheduled for a second reading at the August board meeting until the board postponed it.

The draft policy aims to bar “political indoctrination” and “the teaching of inherently divisive concepts,” which, according to the draft, includes concepts in which “an individual’s moral character is inherently determined by his or her race, sex or faith” or “an individual, by virtue of his or her race, sex, or faith, bears responsibility for actions committed in the past by other members of the same race, sex, or faith.”

Close to a dozen Becker community members spoke at Monday’s board meeting in opposition to the draft policy, including several teachers and students.

Michelle Kuseske, a social studies teacher in the district, says, if implemented, the policy would change her approach to teaching.

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“If this policy is put in place it will force me to violate the terms of my licensure as a social studies educator. This policy contradicts over 90 percent of American government standards and a majority of other social studies standards grades 9-12,” she said. “Teachers like myself like to use controversial events to get students engaged in the concept or information.“

Among its stipulations the draft policy requires regular inspections of classrooms and teachers who display “non-approved material” and “non-United States flags” with disciplinary action — a rule Kuseske said would make it difficult for her to teach about other countries in her classroom.

Yolanda Denson-Byers, pastor at Faith Lutheran Church in Becker, also spoke in opposition to the policy. 

“It may seem like a good idea to ban clothing or conversation that may prove confrontational,” Denson-Byers said. “But policy 471 is a means of trying to secure peace without justice … it is never our role to teach people what to think, but it is certainly our role to teach them how to think.”

Opposition to the policy was not unanimous. 

Russ Armstrong, was the only person to speak at the meeting in support of the policy.  He  said it’s meant to make sure critical race theory, commonly referred to as CRT, isn’t taught in Becker schools. 

“I think policy 471 is an ambitious and broadly aspirational statement which reaffirms policies regarding respectfulness, fairness, tolerance,” Armstrong said. “It seeks to assure that fundamental values of our nation are taught to students and seeks to prevent efforts to denigrate or mischaracterize those fundamental values. I think the target of 471 … was CRT, because CRT teaches a different America than what we’ve all experienced. And it’s a different America than the historical record.”

Critical race theory is often used mistakenly by critics as a catch-all phrase to describe the teaching of systemic racism and efforts entailing diversity, equity and inclusion. Critics frequently mischaracterize it as a concept that classifies white people as personally and inherently racist and bad. In actuality, critical race theory is a graduate-level academic framework for understanding how racism has historically influenced American institutions and thinking. It focuses on race as a social construct and defines racism as a systemic problem embedded in policies and systems, as opposed to the result of individual bias. 

Armstrong said he and others who were concerned about CRT in Becker schools, were also seeking to review district curriculum. 

“What we were seeking to do is discover if there’s any inherently divisive concepts,” Armstrong said. “History, if it’s accurately taught, is not inherently divisive. It’s a fact. It’s only when history is mis-taught, misapplied and turned into a narrative that it becomes inherently divisive and I think we should look out for that.”

Becker’s superintendent has recommended the policy not be approved. The American Civil Liberties Union and Education Minnesota, the state teacher’s union have both written letters to the Becker district warning the policy could violate First Amendment rights and undermine equity efforts.

Meg Luger-Nikolai, an attorney with Education Minnesota said that the union would explore “all legal options” if the policy was not revised to bring it “in line with the most straightforward precepts of state and federal law.”

Becker’s policy committee plans to meet again to discuss the draft after the district’s legal council reviews it.

During the meeting yesterday, board chair Mark Swanson invited community members to attend the policy meeting. 

“There is a policy committee,” Swanson said. “Come to that policy committee meeting and ensure that your voice is heard at that committee.”