Total community responsibility for a universal and egalitarian education has been a feature of Midwestern American culture, especially in Minnesota, from the village days of our original native residents and the early Euro-Americans in the 19th century.
North American Indian education was geared to teaching children how to survive; social education taught children their responsibilities to their extended family and the group, the clan, band, or tribe. Later, Minnesota was settled under the organizing principles of the Land Ordinance of 1785 and the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, requiring that considerable public resources be set aside for free, universal and mandatory public schooling. Midwestern pioneers set aside one whole section of land in each township, sold parts of it to raise money for schools, then raised other taxes to support them, set up school boards, found teachers and continued to invest in and expand public education. Following the first settlers, Minnesota’s rural landscape was populated by those who greatly valued the educational tradition already established, as well as the cooperative and egalitarian models of delivering it. Compared to other states, the language in Minnesota’s state constitution is unusually unequivocal and strong about the community’s obligation to educate, and equally so. This emphasis on education, and in the 1930s the dedication of the state’s new income tax to public schools had a further profound effect. In an August 1973 TIME magazine cover story, civic engagement and dedication to education were cited as the secret ingredients to the state’s superior quality of life.
Since then, however, Minnesota’s rural economics and demographics have been changing rapidly. The rural population is aging, meaning that fewer households have children in the schools, and is becoming more racially diverse. The number of working farms has continued a century-long decline and with mechanization the number of people living and working on farms has declined. Meanwhile, test scores and graduation rates have stagnated or declined in some districts.
Several examples of community-based efforts to support student success are underway across Minnesota. Many of these efforts are described in the next section, Models of Community Engagement in Rural and Greater Minnesota.