No excuses now

Major changes are coming to K-12 education in the state, and most of them aren’t good. Minnesota Democrats took full advantage of their trifecta and passed an education omnibus bill that imposes burdensome mandates and contentious policies on school districts and charter schools statewide.

With a historic education spending budget of $23.2 billion over the next two years (about a third of the total state budget), we will see if these dollars can do what previous funding increases haven’t done before to boost student achievement. No excuses for not being “fully funded,” or that schools need this or that to help students start growing academically. DFL legislators were in full control, so we will finally see our public school system improve, right?

Forgive the skepticism, it’s just that two years ago the legislature passed what was then the largest increase to the K-12 education funding formula in 15 years. But not even a year after the historic spending hike of half a billion dollars, Minnesota’s schools were apparently on the brink of collapse.

Now, with $2.26 billion in new funding for schools — but no accountability for academic achievement — there is concern that the new dollars are attached to too many new mandates, including unfunded ones, that will drain school budgets, leave school districts treading water financially, and students still without the skills they need to be informed and engaged members of society.

Ethnic studies for all schools

American Experiment has written much on efforts to shift our education system from its traditional focus on excellence and pragmatic instruction to an ideological mission focused on reshaping students’ attitudes and beliefs to advance a political agenda.

The latest vehicle for this is critical social justice ideology, which is laced strategically through ethnic studies. Unlike the importance of elevating the cultures, backgrounds, and contributions of all the people who have shaped our great state and country, this version of ethnic studies will inject reductive, racialized thinking into every Minnesota public classroom under innocuous terms.

High schools will have to offer an ethnic studies course by the 2026-27 school year, and elementary and middle schools will have to offer the course by the 2027-28 school year. Ethnic studies is to be embedded into all academic standards. Students must be allowed to take a course on this topic to satisfy their social studies requirement and can use the course to fulfill a language arts, arts, math, or science credit if the course meets the applicable standards.

The bill defines ethnic studies in this ideologically-loaded way:

“Ethnic studies” means the interdisciplinary study of race, ethnicity, and indigeneity with a focus on the experiences and perspectives of people of color within and beyond the United States. Ethnic studies analyzes the ways in which race and racism have been and continue to be social, cultural, and political forces, and the connection of race to the stratification of other groups, including stratification based on the protected classes.

The Minnesota Department of Education will have to create an Ethnic Studies Working Group to advise the commissioner of education on an ethnic studies framework. The Minnesota Ethnic Studies Coalition — a tactical arm of the activist organization Education for Liberation Minnesota — will provide input on who the commissioner should appoint to serve in this group.

‘Antiracist’ curriculum

Minnesota school boards are tasked with adopting a comprehensive, long-term strategic plan to support and improve teaching and learning. With that comes selecting curriculum that will have to be “rigorous, accurate, antiracist, and culturally sustaining.”

What constitutes “accurate” is not defined. (Consider, for example, school districts that use The 1619 Project curriculum despite many historians calling into question its accuracy.)

“Antiracist” is defined as “actively working to identify and eliminate racism in all forms in order to change policies, behaviors, and beliefs that perpetuate racist ideas and actions.” “Culturally sustaining” is defined as “integrating content and practices that infuse the culture and language of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color communities who have been and continue to be harmed and erased through the education system.”

School boards will also have to plan out how to address “institutional racism,” which is defined as “structures, policies, and practices within and across institutions that produce outcomes that disadvantage those who are Black, Indigenous, and People of Color.” The education omnibus bill language links racial disparities to racism.

Reading literacy

The biggest win for students in this bill is the requirement for school districts, teachers, and teacher preparation programs to use evidence-based reading instruction strategies.

Over 52 percent of Minnesota’s 3rd graders can’t read at grade level as measured by the state’s Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment, and 4th grade reading scores on national assessments are the lowest they have been in 30 years and below the national average.

While many sounded the alarm long ago on Minnesota’s struggle to help a number of students become literate, this statewide overhaul of literacy education to ensure that educators are teaching reading using effective strategies is encouraging.

“Evidence-based” instructional strategies must focus on phonological and phonemic awareness, phonics and decoding, spelling, fluency, vocabulary, oral language, and comprehension. The bill’s language specifically states that the three-cueing system, an ineffective reading instruction strategy that teaches students to use visual cues when attempting to read an unknown word, is not evidence-based instruction.

What will Minnesota students — and their families — get for the hefty price tag on their education? DFL legislators have said this education bill is “transformational.” I fear it is so, just in mostly the wrong ways.