It is difficult to underestimate the impact that the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB) has had on U.S. education policy. NCLB greatly expanded the federal government‟s role in education, traditionally the domain of local school districts and the states. It required that all states implement standards, testing, school report cards, Adequate Yearly Progress, and sanctions for “failing” schools in order to continue to receive federal education funding. While the mandate was effective nationwide, each state‟s experience with the law has been unique, shaped by the existing education reforms and the myriad factors that influence state education policymaking.
Frederick Wirt and Michael Kirst describe state education policy as follows: “No such thing as state education policy exists; what does exist are differential state responses to common external and internal events working on the local political system” (1997, pg. 197). The goal of this paper is to document how Minnesota state policymakers responded to the passage of NCLB and to explore how influences on the state political system shaped that response. Minnesota policymakers could do little to change NCLB. However, numerous state-level education accountability decisions followed its passage and were influenced by forces within the state political system:
State actors: From 2003 to 2010, activist Republican Governor Tim Pawlenty used the authority of his office and his alliance with business groups to advance standards-based reform and enthusiastically implement NCLB policies. His national political ambitions led him to tap policy issue networks to bring accountability ideas, like 8th grade algebra, to Minnesota.
Political environment: Near-continuous state budget crises and a governorship and legislature divided along party lines created a political environment primed for conflict.
Political culture: Minnesota‟s moralistic political culture has traditionally emphasized government as a source of common good, issues as the center of political debate and the involvement of citizens in public life. But the increasing polarization in moral values
between conservative and liberal state political actors created stark contrasts in education accountability debates, as in the debate over academic standards and the denial of Education Commissioner Cheri Yecke‟s confirmation in 2004.
Values: Legislators debated the relative importance of values of equity, quality, efficiency, and choice in accountability policy (Wirt & Kirst, 1997). Even when there was agreement over the importance of a value, there was often disagreement over how it would best be advanced. For example, legislators on both sides of the high school GRAD math exit exam debate placed equity at the center of their arguments, but came to opposing conclusions on whether to suspend the exam.
Interest groups: Education interest groups played a modest role in issues of accountability, with the statewide teachers‟ union and business groups the most engaged. The alliance of teachers with the Democratic party and business with the Republican party heightened partisanship around accountability issues with which these groups were involved, such as the Race to the Top federal education reform grant application.
While none of these factors fully explain the decisions made by legislators and the Governor on education accountability, together they shed light on a period marked by massive change.
This paper will start by providing a brief overview of the accountability movement in U.S. government institutions and in public education. It will then provide a timeline of changes to education accountability policy in Minnesota, beginning with the passage of NCLB in 2002 and ending with the close of the most recent legislative session in July 2011. Finally, it will analyze several of the forces that influenced legislative decisions about these policies.
In Partial Fulfillment of the Master of Public Policy Degree Requirements
Legislating Education Accountability in Minnesota: 2002-2011.
Hubert H. Humphrey School of Public Affairs.
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