A voice for the public in education – Time to reconsider a State Board of Education?


Many years ago Governor Rudy Perpich appointed me to the Minnesota State Board of Education (of happy memory). I was a relatively young single mom, living in Mankato, working as a librarian at a private college, a concerned parent and advocate for young learners. When my son Steve, then a diminutive kindergartner, asked what I did as a Board member, I gave him an elevator answer about establishing policy for Minnesota public schools.

Without drawing a breath Steve cut to the chase with a poignant request: That I fix it so that no one at any school in Minnesota could ever call anybody “Shorty!”

Steve had a couple of things right. First, he must have had a brush with bullying, a scourge we couldn’t name, much less counter in those days. Second, he got the concept of policy setting as a transcendent and essential component of public education.

Over the years I have thought often of Steve’s wisdom and prescience, specifically his awareness of the role of policy. And then I ask myself who is setting policy now? With no independent State Board of Education it’s the Legislature, the Governor, the bureaucracy and the lobbyists. Where, I ask, are the voices of moms like me – parents and advocates who are neither beholden nor responsible to voters or taxpayers or lobbyists, but to young learners.

The Board of Education that I knew was abolished  effective December 31, 1999. With that move, Minnesota made way for gubernatorial appointment of the Commissioner and legislative authority over everything else. While we may have lost some political hacks and expedited the decision-making process, the policy piece was left in the dust.

Over the past decade individual legislators have addressed the policy-making gap. For example, Lyndon Carlson proposed reinstatement in 2001; the matter has been discussed by legislators and legislative committees, advocacy groups and others over the years. Though the legislature has taken no action, the discussions continue.

So just what are those policy decisions that argue for a public entity responsible for establishing policy related to an increasingly fragmented education system?

“Back in the day,” we grappled with a host of issues, ranging from minutiae to mega-issues – bussing and school desegregation, sex equity, especially Title IX, the merger of area vocational technical schools with community colleges, school district consolidation, education of American Indian students, and much more. I didn’t always agree with the decisions, but the discussions were open, honest and free of intense political press.

A 2012 State Board of Education would face a very different roster of issues: Bullying is on the list, No Child Left Behind is obvious, and then there are issues of charter schools, education of immigrant/non-English speaking children, online learning, school closings, home schooling, teacher and administrator licensure and, of course, finances, finances, finances.

The de facto policy-makers of today are limited in their freedom and responsibility to exercise independent judgment on policy issues – too many pressures from constituents, advocates and defined authority. Nobody enjoys the freedom of expression and action that the State Board of Education of yore enjoyed and exercised responsibly and with serious deliberation free of political ties.

Bottom line: Is it perhaps time to re-examine the political infrastructure of our education system to see if there is a gaping hole where a committed, informed, independent State Board of Education could and should play a role?  What did we lose when the stroke of the Governor’s pen wrote off a pillar of one of this nation’s finest education systems?

It may be time to take a deep breath and explore if everything old may indeed be new again.

Note: Linked is an overview of the current mix of state education policy-making bodies prepared by the National Association of State Boards of Education.