Tag Archives: Minnesota Schools

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.

Invoking the Spirit of Ruth Myers, Grandmother of American Indian Education in Minnesota

“Uncouth Ruth from Duluth” she loved to call herself to the delight of my young sons.  We all knew that nothing could have been more from the truth.


For decades, Ruth M Myers, known as the “grandmother of American Indian Education in Minnesota” was the driving force and voice for American Indian children and their families.  Though she died in 2001, Ruth left a legacy that might well serve as the model for Governor Dayton and the educators who are struggling with the same issues today.  Her spirit, ideas, courage, and unstinting commitment to American Indian learners set a standard to be emulated.  Her spirit can infuse and thus help shape today’s efforts.


Ruth was not a professional educator but a concerned parent, citizen and a proud member of the Grand Portage Band of Lake Superior Chippewa.  Ruth was sent at an early age to an Indian boarding school, a sad fact that shaped her life and fueled her fervor.  Though she spoke little of those sad experiences, it was easy to feel her pain and the ways in which she harnessed that pain to inspire positive change.


Her accomplishments are legendary.  An elected member of the Duluth School Board, Ruth was appointed by the Governor as the first American Indian member of the Minnesota State Board of Education. Though at times she chaired that Board, she always ruled it by her presence and her persistence.


At the University of Minnesota Duluth where she worked for many years, she remains a legend.  She is credited with starting sixteen of seventeen UMD programs for American Indian students.  Colleagues there recall that, in 1973, she saw a notice in the newspaper that the UMD Medical School was developing a program for American Indians and, in the process, was organizing a committee of community members.  She knocked on the office door of the Dean of the Medical School and asked, “What Indians do you have on that committee?”  The rest is history….


Ruth’s position at UMD before retirement was Co-Director of the Center of American Indian and Minority Health at the School of Medicine.  There she tended not only to recruitment and academic coaching but to life’s details;  she regularly stopped at a legendary purveyor of low-cost fresh produce every time she had a meeting in St. Paul – which was often.  Often I think of how proud Ruth would be of the students to whom she offered a gentle helping hand at the most unexpected moment.


Not one to bow to academic measures, Ruth was truly pleased when UMD named the Ruth Myers Endowed Chair in American Indian Education; though she cared little about the honor she knew it would convey status and support on her beloved program.  She was also touched deeply when the Fond du Lac Community College Library was named for her; that library continues to reflect her influence in many ways.  Ruth understood well the power of the record; she often expressed a conviction that American Indian students should be encouraged to pursue professions in museums, libraries and archives so they could correct, complete and basically set the historic record straight.


Though the list of honors for Ruth is nearly infinite, possibly the most inclusive is the Minnesota Indian Education Association Elder of the Year – it says it all.


My introduction to Ruth was as a member of the State Board of Education.  On the first day, she reminded me that I was as much a member as any of the older and, I presumed, wiser members.  She also declared that,  from that day forward, I was to watch out for women’s issues so she could concentrate on American Indian and other minority students.  Ruth was the mistress of gentle delegation.


Though her accomplishments as a member and Chair of the State Board of Education are inestimable, a few stand out in my clear memory of those days:


  • Ruth advocated unceasingly for review of the image of American Indians in textbooks, library materials, the core curriculum.


  • She fought for preservation of American Indian languages in the schools.


  • She insisted that every Minnesota student must know something about Indian culture.


  • She regaled education professionals about their indifference to the nutritional needs and dietary threats (e.g. milk products) for American Indian youth.


  • Ever open to change, Ruth examined every proposed rule from the perspective of how it would affect Indian kids and their families.


  • And she would frequently point to the American Indian origins of the U of M Morris campus – and the rights of American Indian students who should be encouraged to exercise their inalienable right to attend UM-Morris.


Often a body of writing conveys the thoughts of an academic who wants to have a voice in the future.  For Ruth, the voice was so strong, the commitment so staunch, the vision so clear and the passion so fervent that it is her voice that speaks to those who will but hear.  My hope is that this includes those who are shaping the future of American Indian Education in Minnesota.  As with other great leaders, the vision outlives the individual and must inspire those who would seek to accomplish similar goals – if they will just listen.


My heart rejoiced just recently when I learned that the Duluth School Board has approved changing the name of the Grant Elementary School to Myers-Wilkins Elementary in honor of Ruth Myers and Marjorie Wilkins, an African American advocate.  The Board also approved naming the new auditorium at East High School as the Myers-Wilkins Auditorium. It was an unprecedented battle and a true victory that would please Ruth especially because the honor is shared.  It is a reminder that the voice of Ruth Myers lives.  Her vision and relentless commitment should set a tone and a pace for what comes of the recent first-ever Summit on American Indian Education.

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.  [ for a summary of the Board’s authority and eventual demise see ___ ]  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:  Attached is an overview of the current mix of state education policy-making bodies prepared by the National Association of State Boards of Education.