Photo by Jonny Caspari on Unsplash
by Steve Timmer
Mar 22, 2023, 10:30 AM

You say you want a revolution

In a constituent letter a few weeks ago, Rep. Heather Edelson (DFL-Edina) said that the “Read Act,” for which she is the chief author, would be a revolution.

Edelson quote about the Read Act

Rep. Edelson is right, and for reasons in addition to the changes in literacy curricula: it would destroy local control of school boards for literacy education in their schools.

I’ve written about the Read Act and its single-minded emphasis on phonics multiple times:

The Great Literacy Food Fight
The Great Literacy Food Fight II
The Great Literacy Food Fight III
Logical fallacies in the case for phonics
At least they won’t be burning books, just banning them

But that’s not what I want to talk about now. What I do want to talk about now is how the bill would work a fundamental change in the relationship between the Minnesota Department of Education and the school districts around the state. What is that relationship now? Minn. Stat. § 120B.11 (2022) provides the basic answer: the MDE sets standards and it is up to the districts to meet them. School boards have to file periodic reports about how their students are doing, but unless the districts are failing, the MDE is hands-off. Subd. 9 of the statute says:

Subd. 9. Annual evaluation.

(a) The commissioner must identify effective strategies, practices, and use of resources by districts and school sites in striving for the world’s best workforce. The commissioner must assist districts and sites throughout the state in implementing these effective strategies, practices, and use of resources.

(b) The commissioner must identify those districts in any consecutive three-year period not making sufficient progress toward improving teaching and learning for all students, including English learners with varied needs, consistent with section 124D.59, subdivisions 2 and 2a, and striving for the world’s best workforce. The commissioner, in collaboration with the identified district, may require the district to use up to two percent of its basic general education revenue per fiscal year during the proximate three school years to implement commissioner-specified strategies and practices, consistent with paragraph (a), to improve and accelerate its progress in realizing its goals under this section. In implementing this section, the commissioner must consider districts’ budget constraints and legal obligations.

(c) . . .

Other than districts described in the subdivision, the “commissioner,” meaning the MDE, leaves the districts alone. Even then, it can only direct 2% of the district’s per pupil revenue.

The Read Act would be a sea change in the relationship. It would unilaterally put the Department of Education, maybe working with CAREI, in charge of the literacy curriculum in every public district in the state. Literacy is a big part of a school district’s mission.

Note first that neither the MDE nor CAREI are elected bodies. You might say, well, the Metropolitan Council and the Minnehaha Creek Watershed District aren’t elected either. You might say that, but it isn’t a very good argument. School boards are elected, and they are far closer to the people served in a school district than the Minnesota Department of Education and its commissioner. Lately, school boards have come in for a lot of undeserved abuse, but they are answerable to actual constituents.

CAREI is laughably distant from a voter. If you look up ivory tower in the dictionary, there is a cross reference to CAREI.

Imagine turning over literacy curricula to some bug-eyed control freak at CAREI, or the MDE or to a commissioner appointed by a governor like, say, Ron DeSantis. Personally, I think this is one of the reasons that districts are insulated from the Department of Education under current law.

The Read Act would strip away that insulation for a large part of school district operations. It would also be a blueprint for further usurpations of school board control over the schools in its district.

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