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What’s wrong with a constitutional amendment to improve education?

school lockers
Minnesota has one of the worst K-12 racial education achievement gaps in the country, and something needs to be done. Yet contrary to a recent proposal by former Minnesota Supreme Court Justice Alan Page and Minneapolis Federal Reserve Board President Neel Kashkari, amending the Minnesota Constitution to fix it will do little and potentially make it worse.

Minnesota has a persistent problem with race. The Twin Cities is one of the most racially segregated metropolitan areas in the nation. The state’s racial financial wealth gap is the worst in the nation. The racial incarceration gap is among the worst. There is a persistent racial health care outcomes disparity that is among the worst in America. Among so many measures Minnesota ranks among the bottom when it comes to racial issues. The same is true with K-12 education.

Minnesota’s story when it comes to race and education is an extreme example of what happened nationally. When the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education, 347 U.S. 483 (1954) that separate but equal was an unconstitutional principle when it came to segregated schools, many thought that this court case would promote integration and end racial disparities in education. Instead it produced an intense fight over schools, resulting in white flight from the cities to the suburbs, including in Minnesota, only exacerbating the problem.

Then when the Supreme Court ruled in San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez411 U.S. 1 (1973) that educational funding disparities did not violate the U.S. Constitution, the Supreme Court effectively signaled it was abandoning the battle to address educational equality. Over the next 20 years it eventually issued several decisions that eased federal oversight or enforcement of desegregation. This shifted the battle to the states.

Waves of state litigation

The state battle was a litigious one. All 50 states have constitutional clauses that provide some guarantee of free public schools. The language varies across states, but like many, Minnesota’s original 1857 Constitution in Article XIII, section 1, called for a “general and Uniform system of public schools … throughout the state.” This language remains the same today. Over time, litigants used state constitutional clauses to address racial discrimination. Then there was a second wave of litigation to promote equal funding, then a third to demand adequate funding. Nationally and in Minnesota this litigation promoted some gains, but the problems persisted. Thus, it is not completely unreasonable to think that adopting new constitutional language would impose new state mandates and funding in Minnesota, thereby either allowing for new state policies to be developed or new options for litigation to force change.

The Page and Kashkari proposed language is: “All children have a fundamental right to a quality public education that fully prepares them with the skills necessary for participation in the economy, our democracy, and society, as measured against uniform achievement standards set forth by the state. It is the paramount duty of the state to ensure quality public schools that fulfill this fundamental right.”

Legal change can promote social change. Except improving educational outcomes is more complex than simply passing an education constitutional amendment.

A number of flaws in approach

There are numerous flaws in the constitutional amendment approach. First the achievement gap is part of a complex process of racial and economic segregation in housing and neighborhoods. It is also a product of wealth, income, and health disparities. Students of color are more impacted by these problems than are whites. No matter how much one tries, it is hard to study and achieve in school with a growling belly, or when you’re forced to move constantly because of costly housing, or because parents are working multiple shifts or unable to afford day care. Performance in school is hugely driven by background socio-economic forces that this constitutional amendment will not address.

photo of article author
David Schultz
Second, in the very first education classes I ever took my teacher drew a triangle on the board and on one corner wrote school, and then home and community on the other two corners. He then said that students are educated in all three places – school, home, and community – with teachers, parents, and others all working to educate. His point was to drive home that schools and teachers at best are responsible for one-third of all the learning that takes place with students. Teachers cannot teach unless parents and other reinforce what they do and what their children learn in school. We need to strengthen not just what schools do, but also parents and families. A simple constitutional amendment will not do that.

Third, the proposed amendment measures equal achievement by way of standardized test scores. Overwhelming research already documents the racial and class biases built into these tests. Additionally, especially since the days of No Child Left Behind, under President George Bush, the push for standardized testing has proven to be highly flawed. Teachers are forced to teach to the test and curriculum limits learning to rote activity so that students do well on these exams.

Fourth, and perhaps the biggest flow, is that the constitutional amendment does something without doing anything. It puts all the energy into changing the Constitution, but it kicks the more fundamental problems down the road. The language is not a self-executing amendment, but it will require legislative action to define what are “the skills necessary for participation in the economy, our democracy, and society.” This mandates important decisions to be made to define these skills, how to construct a curriculum to achieve desired goals, who can teach, and how to fund all of this.

The problem hasn’t been law, but political will

Current constitutional language does not prevent the development of any of this; the problem has not been law but political will. New constitutional language as suggested by Page and Kashkari too will not guarantee it, but instead would potentially push critical decisions about educational decisions into the courts, where judges will have to make these decisions. It is not clear that this approach is desirable, and it leaves policy formulation up to the distortions of plaintiff legal strategy — and not one necessarily based on promoting overall sound educational policy.

Finally, stripping the language of uniformity from the current Constitution does run the risk of opening the door to more privatized education. In Florida, the Florida Supreme Court in Bush v. Holmes, 919 So.2d. 392 (Fla. 2006) used the uniformity clause to strike down a voucher system in that state. Take away a uniformity clause and one increases the risk of undermining public schools. Thus, this language arguably would make the state less responsible for educational performance if it produced more private schools. All of this is additional to evidence that charter schools have exacerbated segregation, and at best there is mixed evidence that the school choice models have improved educational quality in Minnesota or internationally.

Page and Kashkari should be commended for raising the issue of educational achievement disparities and the need for a new public policy approach. But it is not clear that their constitutional amendment approach will achieve the outcomes Minnesota needs.

David Schultz is a Hamline University professor of political science. His latest book is “Presidential Swing States: Why Only Ten Matter.” 


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Comments (13)

  1. Submitted by Ron Gotzman on 01/14/2020 - 09:09 am.

    Let us bring true hope and change to education by funding kids first.

    I am sure Mr. Schultz is aware of the large number of students who have a public subsidy to attend his private University.

    It was interesting listening to the Public education union’s outrage to the recent proposal. The special interest will do everything to maintain the trickle down education system even at the expense of the kids.

    I am a huge believer in “education” but the current education model needs to be reformed by funding all the kids – you can’t get more public than that.

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 01/14/2020 - 10:31 am.

      “All the kids” are eligible for a free public education. If they or their parents decide they want something else, they are free to pay for it on their own.

      I am free to express myself on the internet, but that doesn’t mean the state is under any obligation to buy me a computer.

      • Submitted by Robert Lilly on 01/14/2020 - 12:29 pm.

        True, but they are obliged to pay for part of the process that enabled you to buy a computer and express your yourself.

        • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 01/14/2020 - 01:47 pm.

          Not exactly, but even if they were, they are not obligated to pay for something that is exactly my preference. There is one infrastructure provided, and if I don’t like it, I can go pay for something else.

          • Submitted by Nathan Fisher on 01/14/2020 - 06:14 pm.

            I’m not sure you fully grasp public finance and the tax power.

            • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 01/15/2020 - 08:44 am.

              I’m not sure I understand what you’re getting at. The state is under no constitutional obligation to “pay for part of the process” that enables me to buy a computer and express myself. The state is, however, constitutionally obligated to “establish a general and uniform system of public schools.” That does not mean the state is obligated to pay for my personal preference for my child’s education if I want them educated outside that system.

  2. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 01/14/2020 - 12:11 pm.

    …students are educated in all three places – school, home, and community – with teachers, parents, and others all working to educate….

    A student, from preschool to 12, spend about 1000 hours a year in an educational setting, or about 14,000 total.

    Meanwhile, the child from birth to 18 is exposed awake to the world for about a 100,000 hours.

    Educators have contact for about 14% of the formative time.

  3. Submitted by lisa miller on 01/14/2020 - 01:46 pm.

    How do we define quality and why did they not say equally funded? Some argue that the disparity is mostly in graduation rates, others say that MN kids in general do better than other states so that when low income kids come here they are behind and then there are studies that point out that even with early child hood programs you need to involve parents otherwise any gains wash out by 4th grade. Why not focus on equal funding taking into account of course special needs so that every neighborhood has a quality school and has some after school programs. I do see programming in low income neighborhoods, but too often kids don’t want to venture out after dark due to crime concerns.

    • Submitted by Bruce Kaskubar on 02/20/2020 - 11:20 am.

      That it doesn’t say “equally funded” is the biggest problem with the proposal and specifically what the proponents do not want. The metro area already receives and spends much more per student than do other school districts. Equality is left to interpretation which will inevitably lead to education policy constantly whipsawed by litigation and court cases. Too, low performing schools will be rewarded with more funding to catch up, with no limits on their spending (whether it’s on things that matter, or not). This is a proposal only TV attorneys and fools with no foresight can love. Some of the fools will mean well but that doesn’t make good public policy much less constitutional amendments.

  4. Submitted by Pat Terry on 01/14/2020 - 02:03 pm.

    First thing – I have been very critical of some of Schultz’s past pieces, but this one was very well done.

    As Schultz points out, the measurement is based on standardized test scores, which are – at best – highly flawed. We have seen the harm that has been done by making these tests so high stakes – the sole focus of teaching necessarily becomes preparing for the tests, not educating kids. Schools have been moving away from this, but putting it in a constitutional amendment will override the progress made by local schools boards.

    Of course none of this is about educating kids. Its about furthering the agenda of the corporate school reformers. Its about busting teacher’s unions and attacking a profession that has been under assault so long that there is now a shortage of people joining it.

    I always thought Alan Page was a good guy. Very sad to see that he has sold out to right-wing billionaires.

  5. Submitted by David Lundeen on 01/14/2020 - 02:07 pm.

    This obsessive penchant for quantification is destroying education. We’d be better served if the state guaranteed a 10:1 student to teacher ratio at all public schools.

  6. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 01/14/2020 - 06:05 pm.

    I think Professor Schultz has pretty much nailed it, though I like the suggestion in David Lundeen’s 2nd sentence.

    As a former practitioner, I’ve paid attention to education since moving here a decade ago. It seems to me that the existing document (constitution) quite plainly says “uniform,” which, in a rational universe, means “the same” or “equal,” when it comes to education, and particularly in the area of funding. That standard has manifestly not been met, certainly not in recent years.

    That said, however, simply throwing lots more dollars at schools won’t, ipso facto, correct the problems. What Professor Schultz points out, but that too many policy makers choose to ignore, is that educational outcomes are the product of multiple forces and conditions, some of which Mr. Gotzman ignores, as well, and most of which are entirely out of the teacher’s and the school’s control. I worked a few miracles in my 30 classroom years, but expecting a teacher to work miracles with every child in the few minutes of individual attention that’s available to them on a daily basis is neither reasonable nor realistic.

    Education’s problems in Minnesota – and throughout the country – tend to be looked at through a very narrow and parochial lens. As the Professor suggests, a kid who doesn’t know when her next meal will be, whether it will be safe to go home, or even where “home” will be that night, where she can do schoolwork with the television off, whether her parent(s) can or will help her when she comes across an academic issue, and assorted other restrictions on her intellect and emotions, is not going to be able (in most cases) to produce academic results that match her counterpart in a suburban setting, who has easy access to media, the web, transportation, food, clothing, shelter, and – usually – a quieter, safer and more comfortable home environment, not to mention frequently better-educated and more affluent parents.

    For far too many children, living in both rural and urban circumstances, the phrase “equal opportunity” is an especially cruel joke.

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