Published April 23, 2024

Baesler says NDGOP doesn’t reflect voters’ views on education

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The Dakotan
| The Dakotan
Provided via https://www.kirstenbaesler.com/
Provided via https://www.kirstenbaesler.com/

By MARY STEURER (North Dakota Monitor)

Superintendent of Public Instruction Kirsten Baesler said Republicans at the recent state convention showed they are out of touch on education.

This is the first year Baesler is running for superintendent without official support from the NDGOP. Though superintendent is a nonpartisan job, candidates can still seek a letter of support from political parties.

The NDGOP voted to back Baesler at the 2012, 2016 and 2020 endorsing conventions. This year, delegates voted overwhelmingly to support political newcomer Jim Bartlett — a former engineering educator running on a far-right platform that includes putting the Ten Commandments in public schools.

If you ask Baesler, the NDGOP delegation is overly focused on ideological issues that don’t impact the day-to-day lives of teachers and students.

“Our convention process is flawed — it disenfranchises the tens of thousands of Republican voters who can’t afford to take a Friday off from work or school so they can spend a couple thousand dollars to vote in these contests,” Baesler said in an April 5 statement following Bartlett’s endorsement.

In a resolution passed during the 2023 convention, the party decried “secularism” in public school and said the state’s K-12 system was peddling “social programs that politically and ideologically indoctrinate students.”

Baesler said in an interview with the North Dakota Monitor that’s not happening in the public school system. For the most part, what teachers, students and parents really want from the Department of Public Instruction is more support, she said.

Aside from Bartlett, two others have joined the race to unseat her: Darko Draganic, who has a background in higher ed administration; and Jason Heitkamp, who was a state senator from 2021 to 2022.

None of Baesler’s three challengers have run for superintendent before, and each has big ideas about how to change the office.

Bartlett’s platform includes a commitment to integrate more Christian ideas into the public school system. Heitkamp is campaigning on simplifying K-12 education to center on subjects like writing, math, civics, health and fitness. Draganic, meanwhile, has said he wants to cut down on bureaucracy in the Department of Public Instruction.

When asked how she pitches herself to North Dakota voters, Baesler said she points to her achievements in the position.

“I talk about my track record,” she said from her tidy office on the 11th floor of the Capitol.

A shelf by Baesler’s desk is decorated with several apple-themed knickknacks, and a decal on the wall says, “How are the children?” — a reference to the traditional greeting of the Maasai, an Indigenous tribe in Kenya and Tanzania. Baesler said the greeting resonates with her because it helps her keep kids — and not “big-people problems” — at the center of her work.

Baesler was first elected in 2012, succeeding Wayne Sanstead, who held the position for more than 25 years.

Before she was Superintendent of Public Instruction, Baesler worked for the North Dakota School Boards Association, served on the Mandan Public School Board and worked for Bismarck Public Schools.

She counts establishing a teacher apprenticeship program, reducing the size of the Department of Public Instruction by roughly 20% and creating an online dashboard so North Dakotans can understand how their public schools are funded among her accomplishments as superintendent.

It’s a job that’s somewhat misunderstood by the public, Baesler said. She noted the North Dakota constitution gives the Legislature the power to decide what the superintendent can and cannot do.

Baesler said because of those parameters, the superintendent doesn’t actually have the ability to implement some of her opponents’ more ambitious ideas about overhauling North Dakota public education.

Property taxes are another issue where Baesler diverges from many Republicans. A portion of the party supports eliminating property taxes based on the assessed value of a property. But Baesler opposes the movement on the grounds that getting rid of property taxes would leave communities with less local control over how to fund education.

“There will be less skin in the game and less flexibility for our local subdivisions,” she said.

Baesler is a proponent of school choice, which generally refers to the idea that the state should financially support alternatives to standard public K-12 education — which could include private schools, charter or magnet schools or even homeschooling.

That’s one major area where she aligns with the state GOP; a pro-school choice resolution was among those approved by delegates at the recent convention.

According to Baesler, when you allow students a more customized school experience, they’ll be more engaged in their education and more prepared for whatever path they choose after high school.

Baesler openly supported an amendment adopted in the 2023 session loosening certain K-12 open enrollment regulations.

She didn’t take a position on another 2023 bill that sought to partially subsidize tuition for certain families who want to send their kids to K-12 private schools. While it passed both chambers, the proposal was vetoed by Gov. Doug Burgum, who said it didn’t go far enough to expand school choice and lacked proper checks and balances to make sure money would be used responsibly.

Other critics of the bill opposed the idea of public money benefiting private organizations.

Baesler said didn’t take a position on the legislation because her office seldom supports or opposes bills.

“My swim lane is to advise,” she said.

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