Several 501c4 non-profits are looking to tip the ideological balance in at least 13 school districts – 12 of them metro area suburbs, in this year’s elections. Election Day is Nov. 7, but early voting started late last month.
There is a large and active web of organizations affiliated with the effort, according to emails shared with TC Jewfolk. Among those is MassResistance – which the Southern Poverty Law Center has designated as a hate group, Freedom Club, Restore Minnesota, the Center for the American Experiment, State Policy Network, Alpha News, American Majority Action, Minnesota Parents Alliance, Child Protection League, and others.
The primary targets are the Anoka-Hennepin, Bloomington, Duluth, Fridley, Hastings, Minnetonka, Mounds View, Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan, Roseville, South Wash County, Spring Lake Park, Wayzata, and Westonka school board races. In Minnetonka, fewer than one-third of registered voters participated in the 2021 school board elections, compared to nearly two-thirds of voters who voted in a 2022 school board special election, which also had statewide and local legislative candidates on the ballot.
“There are white Christian nationalist groups promoting school board candidates across the state who would have us believe that teaching kids about diversity, ethnicity, race, gender, and accurate American history is distracting,” said Beth Gendler, executive director of Jewish Community Action. Gendler spoke recently at a press conference with representatives of Gender Justice, Education Minnesota, Outfront Minnesota, Unidos Minnesota, and a parent group from Bloomington opposing book bans in school libraries there.
“We are concerned that a toxic national movement is about to sweep into Minnesota school boards through elections,” said Denise Specht, the president of Education Minnesota. “We are finding that there are more and more contested races and these candidates, a lot of times they’re being funded from a national agenda and getting national money.”
The organizations are working in different ways, but are interconnected.
The Minnesota Parents Alliance was created by the Center for the American Experiment and its president, John Hinderaker, and co-founder Christine Trooien. At a 2022 rally at the State Capitol that served as a launch for the organization, Trooien said, “Administrators and activist school board members are embedding divisive curriculum and culture into our school classrooms with alarming urgency and efficiency.”
The MPA – seemingly unsolicited – tweeted in response to stories about Holocaust denier Vaughn Klingenberg being on the ballot in the upcoming Roseville School Board race, that, “voters need to tune out this noise and vote for achievement-focused candidates who believe that our schools need to focus on academics and safety, not distracting personal or political views on race, ethnicity and gender.” They added that they were not endorsing him in the race.
Gendler pushed back against the MPA’s assertion, noting that antisemitic incidents increased by 36 percent last year, the highest number on record since tracking began in 1979.
“What about the noisy notion that an American Jewish cabal was behind migration on the southern border? This manufactured story is what inspired a shooter to murder worshipers in a Pittsburgh synagogue in 2018,” Gendler said. “The noise is deadly. We know that antisemitism can’t be separated from anti-LGBTQ, anti-Black, anti-Muslim, anti-Asian or any kind of hate that targets historically marginalized Minnesotans.”
The MPA has created a voter guide in which they’ve endorsed 48 candidates from across the state. Many of the candidates on the sites have taken what is known as a “pro-human pledge,” which recognizes students as “one human race” and does not single out any one race for special treatment.
The MPA did not respond to emails seeking comment.
Specht said that the MPA has hosted speaker Jennifer McWilliams, who gave a talk in Hastings on social-emotional learning, but said attendees heard stories of conspiracy theories about a government plot to data mine from students. The Minnesota Child Protection League is hosting a speaker later this month, James Lindsay, who the Southern Poverty Law Center said “has become a leading voice in the reactionary anti-student inclusion, anti-LGBTQ, and conspiracy propaganda movements.”
“The Child Protection League is still promoted as ‘a helpful resource’ by the Minnesota Parents Alliance,” Specht said.
Restore Minnesota is a “Christ-centered educational hub creating a united network of God-fearing, America-loving patriots who know it is time to take God-directed action and become the informed, authoritative leadership in every sphere of their local communities,” according to their website. They believe that America’s founding was “rooted in The Mayflower Compact’s directive to honor God and spread the gospel of Jesus Christ, a theme that was preserved by our Founding Fathers as they used the Bible as their primary source material for the contents of The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States.”
Restore Minnesota did not respond to emails seeking comment.
Restore Minnesota’s emails show coordination with many other groups, including its own community action teams that are organized by county, and Minnesota Republican Senate District organizers – despite the school board candidates not having a party-affiliated R or DFL next to their name.
“School board races in Minnesota used to be about hyper-local issues, like bus routes, budgets, attendance lines, and whether or not to build a new school,” Specht said. “By 2021, the national 1776 PAC endorsed candidates in local Minnesota school board races, and no one blinked. Now, school board races have become more and more like regular political campaigns.”
How it concerns Jewish communities
Brandon Schorsch, the combating hate organizer at Jewish Community Action, said that a recent poll looking at the types of beliefs held by people who meet metrics of Christian nationalist thought shows that it’s not one coherent movement.
“It’s like a cornucopia,” he said. “You’ve got Christian Dominionists, who theologically really believe this stuff. And you have people who are kind of following a vibe.”
Matt Taylor, a senior scholar at the Institute for Islamic, Christian and Jewish Studies, said the language on the Restore Minnesota website is fairly representative of the movement. He explained how there are several different streams of Christian nationalism, and some of Restore Minnesota’s language about being “Christ-centered” is evangelical.
“But when they talk about every sphere of their local communities,” he said, “That’s very much rooted in dominion theology and kind of a charismatic or dominion theology idea of the Seven Mountains Mandate.”
The Seven Mountains Mandate is a 1975 theory that instructs evangelicals to invade the “seven spheres” of society identified as family, religion, education, media, entertainment, business, and government.
Restore Minnesota used that language in a recent email: “The evil entrenched in the Education Mountain of our society needs to be shaken loose.”
“It gets dangerous for Jews because when we started looking at the beliefs that are held within these groups, there’s a very strong correlation for quite a few things when it comes to especially like racism or great replacement notions within their thoughts on immigration,” Schorsch said. “That movement is prone to being able to spiral into antisemitic narratives, but [also] there’s a pretty strong correlation between the dual loyalty tropes and Christian nationalist beliefs.”
The danger in all of this, Gendler said, is the imposition of a white, Christian worldview.
“Their strategy is smart in a way,” she said. “When you look at the home pages of these websites, you’re seeing things like parents should be involved in their kids’ education, and we care about our children’s achievement and test scores. But if you dig a little deeper, you see that it is based on a white, Christian hegemonic view of education and what the goals are for our people.”
Jonathan Friedman, director of free expression and education programs for the free speech advocacy non-profit PEN America, said that groups working under the idea of “parental rights” doesn’t tell the whole story.
“One group of parents wants to act for all parents and all students, and they want to remove from schools any books that don’t fit a particular ideological worldview,” Friedman said at a TEDx Talk last year. “People can raise objections about what’s taught in schools and colleges, and parents should be partners in their children’s education. But there’s a clear difference between opting some students out of some topics and opting all students out of all topics to which anyone objects.”
Targeting school libraries
PEN America found in its “2023 Banned In The USA” survey that book banners overwhelmingly target stories by and about people of color and LGBTQ+ individuals. In the first half of the 2022-23 school year, 30 percent of the unique titles banned are books about race, racism, or feature characters of color, and 26 percent of unique titles banned have LGBTQ+ characters or themes.
But in Missouri, Tennessee, and Texas, Holocaust books have also been on the chopping block.
Missouri legislative action led to the Wentzville School District to ban “Holocaust Camps and Killing Centers,” “Holocaust Rescue and Liberation” and “Holocaust Resistance” by Craig Blohm; “Hitler’s Final Solution” by John Allen; “Life in a Nazi Concentration Camp” by Don Nardo, and “Apparatus of Death — The Third Reich” by Thomas Flaherty.
“We see the way in which Holocaust books, as well as books with Jewish characters, do get pulled when there are efforts to remove books,” said Kasey Meehan, the Freedom To Read program director at PEN America. “It’s often that you won’t see a complete, blanket ban on books that talk about the Holocaust, but they’ll be included in blanket bans on books that are being deemed as sexually explicit or age-inappropriate or harmful to minors or violent.”
Meehan said that books with Jewish characters tend to get swept up in bans not because of Jewish identity, but because of intersectional identities. For example, the graphic novel adaptation of the Diary of Anne Frank, has been banned because of her sexuality and sexual orientation.
“It’s easy to dismiss this movement as a Florida thing, as an Oklahoma thing, as a Texas thing. But that would be a mistake because it is here,” Specht said. Moms For Liberty challenged 50 titles in Bloomington, most with LGBTQ+ characters – and 28 have been pulled. In Roseville, MassResistance filed an open records request for all the titles in that district’s school libraries, but only one book was challenged; it was not banned.
The “Bloomington Mamas” Facebook group has mobilized its members against the bans, with more than a dozen speaking at a school board listening session last month.
“One book banner complained that we were going all ‘Mama Bear’ over this. We are,” said Kendra Redmond, who represented the group at last week’s press conference. “We’re caring for children and parents, recovering from COVID, navigating mental health challenges, struggling to afford rising costs and trying to teach our kids about racial justice, kindness, autonomy and integrity in this environment.
“Until the challenge is resolved, 30 titles have been pulled from our school shelves; books that change lives and save lives. Books that share different perspectives and teach our kids empathy, compassion, consent, and that they belong. Books that reflect who they are.”
Meehan said that many of the challenges are instigated by a website called BookLooks, which is based in Brevard County, Florida. The group, which says it ”‘does not support ‘banning’ books,” claims it is not affiliated with Moms For Liberty but that they do “communicate with other individuals and groups with whom there is an intersection of mission and values.” The has ratings of books on a scale of 0 (suitable to everyone) to 5 (aberrant content) to determine suitability in schools. A recent report found that BookLooks reviews were directly used to ban books in at least 12 states.
Meehan said the earliest challenges to books were those with LGBTQ+ characters, as well as books that included characters of color.
“We know that these books are brought into schools through lots of different ways, and professionally trained librarians are incredible individuals to adjudicate what books belong in schools, Meehan said. “Our concern is the removal and the restriction of books that have been brought into schools. And that’s where our line is pretty clear: Whether it’s a book that includes an LGBTQ+ character, or whether it’s a book that discusses race and racism, whether it’s a book that features a story about the Holocaust, or includes Muslim characters, like those books belong in schools, and should not be removed based on narrow ideological viewpoints.”
All but two of the books on the list the Bloomington School District sent to TC Jewfolk have BookLooks profiles, and all are books that feature LGBTQ+ or characters of color.
Meehan said that book banning has happened across ideological lines. In the wake of the murder of George Floyd, books that used racist tropes like Huckleberry Finn, Of Mice and Men, and To Kill a Mockingbird were among the books taken out of school curricula because of the use of the N-word, among other reasons.
“Calls to remove books that include the N-word are very different than calls to remove books that include LGBTQ+ characters, right,” Meehan said. “But the context around those restrictions are from different places. Book banning is part of American history and we’ve seen it from both sides.”
Kyrstin Schuette knows firsthand what it’s like to go head-to-head against an adversarial school district. She was “Jane Doe” in a 2010 Federal lawsuit against the Anoka-Hennepin School District over their neutrality policy, which required teachers to remain neutral when issues of sexual orientation come up in the classroom. Schutte said that it created a “really toxic and terrible environment, particularly for LGBTQ students like myself,” she said. “We unfortunately had nine student suicides over the course of a year.”
“It was happening because of the school board members and folks who instituted these policies,” Schuette said. “That’s where I really saw what happens, and how we get to this very dark` and sad place,” Schuette said.
Her first bit of activism was to be a part of the lawsuit that led to the Department of Justice imposing a five-year consent decree against the Anoka-Hennepin School District, which is the largest in Minnesota. The school board ultimately voted 5-1 in 2012 to revoke the neutrality policy.
Schuette’s experiences led her to create the School Board Integrity Project, which provides training, resources, and information to current and potential school board candidates in Minnesota.
“School boards are incredibly important to me,” she said. “I really understand personally what’s at stake when folks who don’t value fostering a welcoming environment and a safe place for every single student to learn to thrive and succeed.”
Seeing national organizations like Center for the American Experiment and the Child Protection League – which was involved in Anoka-Hennepin in 2010 – is giving Schuette a familiar uncomfortable feeling that she had 13 years ago.
“[Those groups] are politicizing and nationalizing these races that are about communities and about students,” she said. “I have that pit in my stomach that I did in 2010, when I saw what was happening and said, ‘You know, we need to do something about this.’”
Schuette launched SBIP after watching the MPA help 50 of their candidates get elected statewide. She said in less than two months, they have helped train more than 60 candidates in 14 school board races, and more than 200 volunteers. Given that the MPA is endorsing candidates running in 21 districts, she can expect to go head-to-head.
“The demand has been incredibly, beautifully overwhelming,’ she said. “I knew the demand was there. I knew this was needed. But … 2023 for me, was about doing the most good I could to help these candidates and use it as a test case. But we’re at the build-it-bigger now conversation.”