Our View: Keep politics — and politicians — out of classrooms | Our View

The dispute in Edina last year had to do with politically conservative students who felt their free speech rights were not being respected. Some teens told legislators last month that they were bullied and harassed for political reasons by teachers and classmates.

The Edina Young Conservatives Club eventually went so far as to file a lawsuit against the district. It was dropped last month.

Along the way, the Edina matter was turbocharged by Katherine Kersten, of the Twin Cities-based Center of the American Experiment, a conservative public policy institute. Kersten wrote an “expose” for the Center’s magazine that alleged liberal “indoctrination,” intimidation and bullying of conservative students in the Edina schools.

The article was headlined, “Whose Values? Educational excellence threatened by ideology in Edina schools.” A version of it appeared as an op-ed column in the Star Tribune, where Kersten wrote, “In place of academic excellence for all, the district’s primary mission is now to ensure that students think correctly on social and political issues — most importantly, on race and ‘white privilege.’”

Not surprisingly, Edina officials have denied that they’re brainwashing students and they take exception to how Kersten and other critics have characterized discipline, bullying and academic issues there, but thanks to the attention from conservative media, what was an isolated local issue became a hot-button political theme.

Among other requirements, it would demand “caution from classroom teachers when expressing personal views in the classroom and prohibit the introduction of controversial matters without a relationship to the subject taught, especially matters in which the classroom teacher does not have special competence or training.”

In other words, it would require school districts to take away any inclination that teachers may have to discuss current events and invite dialogue with young people on potentially controversial issues — and if you’re a math teacher, for example, don’t even think about talking about current events in your classroom.

Nelson says her bill, which has been approved by one Senate committee and now goes to the Education Finance Committee, which she chairs, would protect students from having to express political views if they don’t want to, and it would require teachers to present a full range of political opinions.

If it sounds like that’s already the law or already the professional practice in schools, it is.

Teachers are trained professionals, they’re accountable to parents and school leadership, they have a code of ethics and they’re aware of laws against discrimination.

They also know that some of the most important teaching moments are when students and teachers freely exchange and debate ideas. Teacher and student try to find the right words to express complex opinions, they listen closely and hopefully learn from each other.

Does it sometimes happen that a teacher leads a conversation or a classroom exercise that gets into issues that some students or parents find inappropriate? Sure, and the place to take that up is in the principal’s office, with the school board or with the state board that licenses teachers. A local concern of that kind is best addressed at the local level, not with more rules required by St. Paul that likely would have a negative impact on education.

This bill may be well-intentioned, and it may be good politics for Nelson, who’s running for the 1st District House seat being vacated by Tim Walz, but as public policy, it doesn’t make the grade.