ST. PAUL — Weak language in the state’s constitution is keeping Minnesota from correcting its vast racial and socioeconomic disparities in education, according to two leaders who want an amendment put before voters in November.
Former Supreme Court Justice Alan Page and Neel Kashkari, president of the Federal Reserve Bank in Minneapolis, are building a coalition around the idea.
They want to replace the constitution’s education clause with language that would guarantee children an “equal right to quality public education.”
The current language, enacted in 1857, says Minnesota should have a “uniform system of public schools.” The Supreme Court has interpreted that to mean an “adequate” education system.
“While many good faith attempts have been made to close our achievement gaps for at least two decades, we must be honest that we’ve made virtually no progress,” Kashkari said Wednesday, Jan. 8. “We need a bold approach to transform education in our state.”
The Fed issued a report in October that said Minnesota has some of the worst disparities in educational achievement, with low-income and students of color far behind their peers on state standardized tests, graduation rates and markers of college readiness.
Since then, Kashkari and Page have been shopping their idea for a constitutional amendment.
“Updating our constitution by making quality education a civil right for all children will put power in the hands of families, where it belongs,” Page said. “This proposal will hold the state accountable to ensuring all children are getting the education they deserve.”
Among their supporters are Generation Next, a Minneapolis nonprofit focused on closing achievement gaps, and the Minnesota Business Partnership.
“This constitutional amendment will compel our state to enact the types of systemic reforms in K-12 education that will ensure we are preparing every child for future success in the global economy,” said Charlie Weaver, executive director of the business partnership.
Michelle Walker-Davis, executive director for Generation Next, said she is “encouraged by the potential to shift the balance of power in educational decision-making toward those most impacted, giving more voice to parents and students themselves.”
Denise Specht, president of the teachers union Education Minnesota, called the idea a “distraction” and said lawmakers simply need to fully fund the state’s schools.
“The amendment shifts responsibility from the state to courts. This favors wealthy families. Students shouldn’t have to wait for their parents to save money, hire attorneys and file a lawsuit to improve their schools. That takes years,” Specht said on Twitter.
She also said the removal of “uniform” from the education clause would open the door to the public funding of private schools.
The Supreme Court’s determination that Minnesota guarantees an “adequate” education comes from the 1993 school funding case, Skeen v. State of Minnesota.
Page, who had just joined the Supreme Court, dissented in that case, writing: “The State’s duty toward its children is not satisfied unless it provides equal educational opportunities for all children.”
Since then, the state’s disparities in education outcomes have only grown between groups of students.
Page and Kashkari say the constitutional amendment would establish a mandate for not just lawmakers but also the governor and the courts to ensure Minnesota is providing a “quality education for all children.”
Kashkari said when other states have made similar updates to their constitutions, lawmakers have responded with changes to their education systems. Although he and Page aren’t prescribing specific reforms, Kashkiri said possibilities include more funding for schools, expanded enrollment options for families, and publicly-funded transportation to higher-quality schools.
Adding to that list, Page said that making a quality education a civil right in Minnesota could result in changes to teacher preparation programs that would better equip teachers to educate diverse students.
“The possibilities are endless, I suppose,” Page said. “I can’t tell you what it will look like, but I can tell you the changes will be dramatic.”
Page and Kashkari acknowledge new constitutional language could result in a flurry of lawsuits.
“Litigation that results in closing the achievement gaps … would seem to be money well spent,” Page said.
The state now is fighting two cases over the adequacy of its current system — one over funding, the other racial segregation.
In Cruz-Guzman, filed in Hennepin County District Court, plaintiffs argue that state laws allowing for open enrollment and single-race charter schools have created an unconstitutionally segregated system of education in the seven-county metro area.
Dan Shulman, attorney for the Cruz-Guzman plaintiffs, called the proposal commendable but is not convinced it would change anything. He said the Supreme Court already has ruled that children are entitled to an adequate education and that a segregated system would not meet that criteria.
“The language we have now and the judicial decisions we have now, I believe, accomplish what (Page and Kashkari) hope to accomplish,” he said.
In a separate case in St. Cloud, school board members and parents say the state doesn’t provide enough money to cover the extra costs associated with educating English learners and low-income and special education students. The state says it’s not obligated to do so, and the courts so far have agreed.
“If we can get a constitutional amendment to do what we’re talking about, that’s wonderful,” said Jerry Von Korff, attorney for the St. Cloud plaintiffs. “But the fact is the last three governors and legislatures have been staring the Supreme Court’s Skeen decision in the face and thumbing their noses at it.”
Attorney General Keith Ellison, who is defending the state in the adequacy lawsuits, nonetheless supports the proposal to change the constitution, saying it “opens an important discussion about quality schools and placing all Minnesota children first.”
In Forslund, another recent lawsuit that referenced Skeen, the plaintiffs failed to make the case that teacher tenure and seniority-based layoffs were putting ineffective teachers in front of students of color, depriving them of their right to an adequate education. The teachers union strongly opposed that argument.
Lawmakers have put constitutional amendments before voters 213 times since Minnesota became a state, according to House research. Voters have adopted 120 of them, most recently in 2016, when the people established a council to raise lawmakers’ pay.