Minnesota education policy – Who’s in charge?


Commenting on the “America the Ugly” social studies curriculum now raising such a controversy in Minnesota, an opinion piece in the National Review Online blog asserts that “any development of American-citizenship education (history/social studies) standards should involve elected legislators in the states, which have the responsibility for education under the Constitution.”

That assertion suggests to me that what this state needs at this hour is a really good State Board of Education. The “responsibility for education under the Constitution” [sic] may not be enough. The raging controversy about the state standards for social studies invites discussion of the role that an independent appointed Board might play in the arena of state education policy. We once had one of those until 1991 when the Legislature decided to eliminate the Board and assume full responsibility for education policy and finance.

Granted the SBE was not perfect. There was more than a hint of political favoritism when the Governor named Board members (which were, by the way, ratified by the Senate.) And there was some inclination on the part of Board members to meddle at times in issues that had a profound impact on their constituents.

Still, the Board was a buffer and a free agency. Over the yeas Board members grappled with some tough issues – integration of urban schools and bussing being the most prominent. They dealt, too, with Title IX implementation and a host of issues related to the education of women and girls. They deliberated the inclusion of American Indian history in the curriculum, the politics of the vocational system, child nutrition, school district consolidation, administrator requirements and countless other controversial matters of local and state significance.

Legislators are comfortable dealing with fiscal issues and policy related to financial formulas, disparities, the long-term implications of the Minnesota Miracle. They ignore their constituents’ predilections at their own political peril.

Members of the State Board of Education had little to say about money. Policy was their beat. They answered to the Governor rather directly to the voters. The SBE was free to advocate, to serve as a liaison among constituencies, to establish and enforce policies that would never win voter approval.

There are over fifty states and other political bodies that belong to the National Association of State Boards of Education. There are just about as many variations on the theme of policy-setting as there are systems. A look at the mix of possibilities suggests that neither the present legislative authority nor the role of the former Board is the only way or even the best way to shape education policy at the state level. Options abound.