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Lawmakers Consider Restoring Board of Education
By Tim Pugmire, Minnesota Public Radio
February 24, 2001
Part of MPR's online coverage of Session 2001
Click for audio RealAudio

The Minnesota Legislature voted three years ago to abolish the state Board of Education, but now some lawmakers are trying to reverse that decision. At least two bills have been introduced this session to resurrect the board. One would recreate the same type of board that went out of business in December 1999, with the governor appointing its members. Another proposal would allow voters to decide its membership.

Republican Rep. Mark Buesgens says combining policy-making and policy-implementation in a state agency shortchanges its customers.
FOR 80 YEARS, the citizen members of the Minnesota Board of Education helped shape public policy in Minnesota and ensured laws were carried out by the state education department. But lawmakers questioned the board's effectiveness in 1997 after its controversial failure to craft a statewide diversity rule for public schools. A year later they voted to abolish the board.

Rep. Alice Seagren, chairwoman of the House K-12 Finance Committee, says that vote was a mistake.

"I think there's a reality now that maybe we cut our nose off to spite our face and now we're wishing we hadn't been so hasty. We couldn't see the benefit, but now think we're seeing some need for it, Seagren says.

Seagren says one benefit of the state board of education was its relationship with charter schools. The board used to approve all new charter school proposals and served as a sponsor to charter schools unable to gain sponsorship from a school district or other institution. The 1998 law that killed the board also transferred its power to the commissioner of the Department of Children, Families and Learning. But the current CFL Commissioner Christine Jax stopped sponsoring additional charter schools. She told members of the Minnesota Rural Education Association she acted to avoid a conflict of interest.

"Without the state board, that leaves me sponsoring schools and doing monitoring and compliance and regulating schools. And I felt that was a very uncomfortable position," according to Jax.

Republican Rep. Mark Buesgens agrees there is a conflict of interest; one that he says goes far beyond charter schools. He says combining policy-making and policy-implementation in a state agency shortchanges its customers. Buesgens says many school administrators no longer turn to the Department of Children, Families and Learning if they need help.

"Very few administrators that I've talked to readily say that they call the CFL for support. They just don't see that in that light, and the CFL is seen more as the education cops. I believe that there's a dynamic out there that isn't healthy and can be improved upon," says Buesgens.

Buesgens' remedy is proposed legislation letting Minnesota voters select an eight-member, policy-making board of education, with one seat for each congressional district. Board members would serve four-year terms.

In 1983, the state Legislature transferred the board's power to appoint the education commission to the governor. Buesgens' legislation would let voters also select a commissioner, whose title would be changed to state superintendent of public instruction.

DFL Rep. Lyndon Carlson has proposed legislation to recreate a new board that would look a lot like the old one, with the governor appointing members. There would be a representative for each of the state's eight congressional districts, plus four at-large seats. Carlson says the abolishment of the board eliminated an important forum for public input.

"I just think you know when we're dealing with education, we have our local school boards to make sure we have citizen input, that parents and other interested citizens can be part of the process. And I would argue the same would be true on the state level," says Carlson.

A similar bill has been introduced in the Senate, but it might have a hard time getting a hearing. Sen. Sandy Pappas, DFL-Saint Paul, chairwoman of the Senate Education Committee, says she doesn't think there much interest in the proposal.

"I think it's difficult to resurrect boards. I would be more interested in doing a charter school board that was narrowly focused on charter schools than to recreate the whole state board of education," says Pappas.
Pappas says such a board could be a free-standing entity or part of a state agency. Members of the House Education Policy Committee will debate whether to revive the state board of education next Thursday when they hold hearings on the Buesgens and Carlson bills.

Tim Pugmire covers K-12 education for Minnesota Public Radio. Reach him via e-mail at