Feb 17, 2022 - News

Culture wars overwhelm Minnesota schools with data requests

Illustration of a hand holding a magnifying glass over a stack of papers.
Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Public school districts in Minnesota are being inundated with data requests related to hot-button topics like critical race theory and COVID protocols, mostly from conservative groups.

  • It's caused headaches for administrators and sparked a debate about freedom of information laws, according to our education news partner, The 74.

Why it matters: School districts told The 74 that fulfilling the requests is sucking up staff time and money, while freedom of information advocates worry that state lawmakers will use the requests to weaken open records laws.

What's happening: Owatonna Public Schools is working to fulfill a request that it says totals 2 million pages. The request came from United Patriots for Accountability and its Twin Cities law firm, the Upper Midwest Law Center — which has a mission of fighting critical race theory.

  • Rochester School District says it will cost $900,000 to fulfill a request from Equality in Education — a conservative group — on a broad range of subjects, including critical race theory, equity and anything with "a sociological or cultural theme," per The 74.
  • And Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan said it received a request that it originally estimated would take two years to fulfill. But after some narrowing of search terms, it says it can have it done by the end of the year.

Between the lines: Minnesota law limits government agencies from passing along costs to those making the requests.

What they're saying: School districts are asking state lawmakers to allow them to recover costs for fulfilling the requests from the groups making the asks.

  • Meanwhile, freedom of information advocates say shifting those costs would make it harder for people to know what their government is doing.
  • "Particularly in times of public controversy — such as those we currently find ourselves in — public knowledge about government operations is paramount," MNCOGI wrote.

The other side: An attorney for the Upper Midwest Law Center defended the scope of an Equality in Education request in a November letter to the editor published in a Mankato paper.

  • "If Owatonna were truly not teaching [critical race theory], and if there was no real concern that teachers within the district are doing so, the data request would have yielded few, if any, results."
  • The Minneapolis-based law firm for Equality in Education, Mohrman, Kaardal & Erickson, didn't reply to The 74's request for comment.

What to watch: Debate and scrutiny over what's being taught in schools will only intensify as the election nears.

  • Republicans, including here in Minnesota, see "parental rights" in education as a wedge issue that will drive voters to the polls in November.

Editor's note: This story has been corrected to note that Don Gemberling is a spokesperson for the Minnesota Coalition on Government Information, not the Minnesota Council on Government Information.

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