by Karl Bunday
Parents of gifted children in Minnesota from time to time find that a particular course at their local school is designed for a different level of background or a different learning pace from what their children are ready for. Minnesota state policy, set by the Legislature, includes a general mission statement for public education in Minnesota.
“120A.03 MISSION STATEMENT.
“The mission of public education in Minnesota, a system for lifelong learning, is to ensure individual academic achievement, an informed citizenry, and a highly productive work force. This system focuses on the learner, promotes and values diversity, provides participatory decision making, ensures accountability, models democratic principles, creates and sustains a climate for change, provides personalized learning environments, encourages learners to reach their maximum potential, and integrates and coordinates human services for learners. The public schools of this state shall serve the needs of the students by cooperating with the students’ parents and legal guardians to develop the students’ intellectual capabilities and lifework skills in a safe and positive environment.”
One aspect of building a system of public education that “promotes and values diversity” and “provides personalized learning environments” is the Minnesota statute that allows parents to review school curricula and arrange for alternative instruction. Here is a link to the statute. It is very general in language, and has been used by parents in a variety of school districts.
“Each school district shall have a procedure for a parent, guardian, or an adult student, 18 years of age or older, to review the content of the instructional materials to be provided to a minor child or to an adult student and, if the parent, guardian, or adult student objects to the content, to make reasonable arrangements with school personnel for alternative instruction. Alternative instruction may be provided by the parent, guardian, or adult student if the alternative instruction, if any, offered by the school board does not meet the concerns of the parent, guardian, or adult student. The school board is not required to pay for the costs of alternative instruction provided by a parent, guardian, or adult student. School personnel may not impose an academic or other penalty upon a student merely for arranging alternative instruction under this section. School personnel may evaluate and assess the quality of the student’s work.”
Minnesota Statute 120B.20 does not specify the nature of the objections parents may raise to curricula. Any objection of any kind is allowed by the language of the statute. I’ve never tried making use of this statute myself. I first heard about applying this statute (which I learned about in other contexts) to arranging challenging courses for gifted learners from clients of psychologist Deborah Ruf, who credited her with telling them about the statute. I’ve since heard from various members of the Minnesota Council for the Gifted and Talented (MCGT) that they have made use of Minnesota Statutes 120B.20 to arrange for their children to take, for example, a more challenging or background-appropriate mathematics course for their children, with the parent making the arrangements to supply the alternative curriculum.
The law requires each school district to have a procedure for meeting such a parental request, and that procedure shouldn’t take forever. You have the right to review your child’s school curriculum, period. Definitely you’ll want to mention the specific statute citation (Minnesota Statutes section 120B.20, Parental Curriculum Review) the next time you talk to the school. It is my experience, as a lawyer, that most government officials in most positions are not intimately familiar with all the laws that regulate their behavior as government officials. They are busy doing their main jobs, but ultimately school officials have to follow the law. That is part of their responsibility of office.
At least one school district in Minnesota has claimed to parents that an administrative regulation from the Department of Education (for which no citation was provided) limited the scope of application of Minnesota Statutes 120B.20. But administrative regulations can only be adopted with statutory authority, so if there is some new regulation in this sphere, there had better be a showing in the administrative rule-making process that there was such statutory authority, and that members of the public had notice and opportunity to comment during the rule-making process. There is nothing in the statutory language that restricts the scope of reasons why the parent “objects to the content” of a school lesson. It seems plain enough to me as a historical matter that a big part of what the statute was about when it was passed was mandatory sex education classes in school, but the statute’s language was intentionally open-ended, and the cardinal rule in statutory interpretation is to follow the plain language of the statute in the first instance.
The question that I’ve recommended that parents memorize (as I have mentioned at information meetings for parents) is: “What legal authority do you have to ask me to do this?” Every parent should come back with that question whenever a government official suggests doing something that you feel may not be helpful for your child. On some issues, the school official really does have legal authority to make you do something you might not want to do, but freedom of personal conduct is the default principle in American law, so if there is a restriction on your freedom, it has to be written down somewhere in the form of a statute or an administrative regulation. Laws have citations. Any time someone at your friendly local school tells you you have to do something because it’s the law, it’s a good idea to ask what the citation of the law is.
Also of relevance to this issue is a newer state statute that requires all school districts in Minnesota to develop academic acceleration policies.
“(a) School districts may identify students, locally develop programs, provide staff development, and evaluate programs to provide gifted and talented students with challenging educational programs.
“(b) School districts may adopt guidelines for assessing and identifying students for participation in gifted and talented programs. The guidelines should include the use of:
“(1) multiple and objective criteria; and
“(2) assessments and procedures that are valid and reliable, fair, and based on current theory and research.
“(c) School districts must adopt procedures for the academic acceleration of gifted and talented students. These procedures must include how the district will:
“(1) assess a student’s readiness and motivation for acceleration; and
“(2) match the level, complexity, and pace of the curriculum to a student to achieve the best type of academic acceleration for that student.
The mandatory language (“must”) in subsection (c) of this statute means that any school district you talk to anywhere in Minnesota should be able to show you (by now) the district’s policy on academic acceleration of gifted students. See how what you are requesting fits the district’s policy. If the district is not providing its own appropriate curriculum for your child, that is your rationale for offering to provide something else under Minnesota Statute 120B.20 to meet the child’s need.