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The Page-Kashkari proposal for a constitutional right to ‘quality public education’ finds support at the Capitol

Alan Page
MinnPost photo by Erin Hinrichs
Alan Page: “What the solution will be, as I stand here, I can’t tell you.”

On Tuesday, a bipartisan group of lawmakers threw their support behind a controversial proposal to set a higher standard for education in Minnesota through a constitutional amendment. 

Rep. Rena Moran, DFL-St. Paul, authored a bill (HF 3658) that would update the education clause, making a quality education a civil right for all Minnesota children and elevating it to the very top priority of the state. 

Current language, adopted in 1857, only guarantees access to an adequate education system, as interpreted by the courts. And it doesn’t put enough pressure on state lawmakers to make meaningful education funding and policy reforms, critics say. 

Supporters of an update are pitching the proposal — spearheaded by Alan Page, former Minnesota Supreme Court justice, and Neel Kashkari, president of the Minneapolis Federal Reserve Bank — as a way to disrupt the current system and close achievement gaps. 

“We simply cannot wait to act while too many of our children lack the opportunities necessary to reach their full potential,” Moran said at the press conference Tuesday. “The only meaningful solution before us includes upsetting the status quo.”

Currently, the Minnesota Constitution states “it is the duty of the legislature to establish a general and uniform system of public schools.”

The bill takes the new language, drafted by Page and Kashkari — which specifies “all children have a fundamental right to a quality public education” and that it’s “the paramount duty of the state to ensure quality public schools” — and would bring the decision to Minnesota voters this fall.

State Rep. Rena Moran
MinnPost photo by Erin Hinrichs
State Rep. Rena Moran: “We simply cannot wait to act while too many of our children lack the opportunities necessary to reach their full potential.”
The ballot question, as specified in the bill, would ask voters: “Shall the Minnesota constitution be amended to provide that all children have an equal right to a quality public education?”

In order to get a proposed change on the ballot, however, its backers will need to persuade more legislators to get on board with the idea. Constitutional amendments require a simple majority vote in both the House and the Senate to be put before voters. 

The teachers union, Education Minnesota, has come out in strong opposition, warning that removing the uniformity clause would pave the way for private school vouchers. The union’s president, Denise Specht, has continued to speak out in opposition. On social media, she notes her concerns also include that it would remove the state Legislature’s mandate to fund public schools and that it would enshrine standardized tests in the constitution. 

Given allegiances that fall along party lines, Democratic lawmakers have proven to be more reluctant to throw their support behind this initiative.

The mix of co-signers on Moran’s bill, however, indicates that this issue has the potential to transcend party politics. In addition to a number of Republicans, it has the support of a handful of Democratic lawmakers — notably, Moran and six other authors are members of the Minnesota People of Color and Indigenous (POCI) Caucus.

That list includes Rep. Samantha Vang, DFL-Robbinsdale. 

“This amendment is meant to challenge the system — not teachers — by shifting power to families,” she said at the presser Tuesday.

Not all members of the POCI caucus, however, agree a constitutional amendment is the right way to go. At a separate press conference held Wednesday, where the POCI caucus presented its legislative priorities, Moran’s bill didn’t appear on the agenda. 

Sen. Jeff Hayden, DFL-Minneapolis, told reporters that while everyone agrees lawmakers need to engage in a conversation about eliminating educational disparities, this isn’t the approach he and some of his colleagues in the caucus support. 

“I want to be really clear that there are those of us in the caucus that do not believe that’s the right way to go,” he said. 

Rep. Mary Kunesh-Podein, DFL-New Brighton, echoed his sentiment, saying that as an educator and a lawmaker, she would not support a constitutional amendment, especially when the potential ramifications remain unknown.

Although the governor has no veto power in this instance, since a constitutional amendment doesn’t require his signature, he hasn’t endorsed the effort beyond calling it “a great conversation starter.”

By design, Page has said, the new language is not prescriptive. In other states, where stronger education clauses have prompted legislative action — either as a proactive measure, or as a reactive measure in response to litigation — it’s led to significant reforms in education funding and policy. 

“What the solution will be, as I stand here, I can’t tell you,” Page said at the press conference on Tuesday. “But I can tell you that by enacting this constitutional provision, it will be a catalyst for change.”

Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison — the person responsible for defending the state, if a stronger education clause were to lead to litigation — says he sees this particular change as a good thing, pointing to Brown v. Board of Education as an example of how litigation can lead to meaningful education reforms.

Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison
MinnPost photo by Erin Hinrichs
Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison — the person responsible for defending the state, if a stronger education clause were to lead to litigation — says he sees this particular change as a good thing.
“I can assure you that ‘paramount duty,’ ‘quality public education’ is, I think, a better standard — a higher standard for me to have to defend, but a better standard — than ‘adequate,’ which is how I think courts have construed the meaning of a uniform system of education,” he said Tuesday, standing alongside the bill’s authors. 

He refuted claims that the proposed changes would somehow siphon money away from public schools, through private school vouchers, and welcomed the uncertainty that comes with it. 

“We don’t know exactly how it’s going to unfold 5, 10 years from now if we do it,” he said. ‘But it will yield positive benefits when you put children first. We have to set our intention right.”

Comments (21)

  1. Submitted by Michael Hess on 02/27/2020 - 10:18 am.

    How again will changing the word adequate to quality drive improvement? Can’t these be interpreted to be the same thing? If we agree that things are not adequate today based on disparate outcomes (but change is not pursued) how will a word change alter the response?

  2. Submitted by Pat Terry on 02/27/2020 - 10:51 am.

    Thanks for the weekly update on Minnpost’s efforts to support corporate education “reform*.”

    * Brought to you by the Walton (Wal-Mart) family.

  3. Submitted by David Markle on 02/27/2020 - 11:00 am.

    Aside from real problems that Page and Kashkari hope to see addressed, I’m afraid that vagueness of language will in itself give rise to lawsuits. That’s what has happened with quite a lot of state environmental law.

  4. Submitted by joe smith on 02/27/2020 - 11:10 am.

    Better define “quality education” because public schools have figured out if you keep pushing through kids, that are not grade level proficient, the money follows that student for 13 years. Never understood why vouchers, parental choice and competition scares the public schools so much. If the public school system is working as well as its supporters claim, bring on the competition.

    • Submitted by Peter Stark on 02/28/2020 - 12:25 pm.

      The reason is that we’ll end up with a system where tax money goes to the investors of the private schools. You end up with an education system that will achieve the exact same results as the public one, but with the added dead-weight of our kids educations being short-changed for greater profit margins for investors.

      There is no reason to believe that a privatized system will achieve better results than the public system. If you privatize small sections of it and then cherry-pick the data, you can extrapolate a specious argument about how mass privatization would be beneficial, and that’s what most ‘school choice’ advocates have done. The real solution to what ails education in America is a fundamental realignment of wealth, income, health, and the means of production.

  5. Submitted by Bob Barnes on 02/27/2020 - 11:16 am.

    Still a bad idea. Leaving it up to the courts will make a bigger mess. It’s not a matter of spending, we already spend way more then necessary on education. The problems lie in many places…..poor parenting, the teachers union, bad curriculums (Common vote et al), too many admin staff, lack of discipline in schools…etc.

    How about we stop passing kids who can’t do the work for once? Or make it easier to home school and go to private/charter schools?

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 03/02/2020 - 09:52 am.

      Parents are free to send their children to private schools if they can find a way to pay the tuition (and if they want state money to do so, there had better be state oversight of those schools). Charter schools are free.

      Parents are also free to home school their children if they like. No one is stopping them.

  6. Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 02/27/2020 - 12:04 pm.

    I thiunjk a lot of us are trying really hard to take former Justice Page’s proposal seriously even though he himself admits that he doesn’t know how it would work beyond the nice-soudnig term “quality eductionb.”

    I suggest that, instead of a Constitutional amendment that does nothing (Ellison’s confusing talk about it men tions litigation, but this is Constitutional amendment to be voted on by a Minnesotans, not litigated), the Legislature simply get a backbone and start funding our public schools again!

    They’re way behind where they were in state funding of excellence thirty or forty years ago, with the most salient non-funded mandate being the one that involves the toughest kids to teach–those with known problems of learning or physical disabilities.

    I’m very suspicious of proposals that really don’t have any idea of what implementation means or how to get it.

    • Submitted by Jackson Cage on 02/28/2020 - 09:10 am.

      Completely agree Connie. The problem has clearly been identified and the evidence shows it cannot be denied. Unfortunately, the solution is wrong. State resources are going to be burned up in endless litigation, leaving even less for schools. I wish I were smart enough to have a better solution, but I do know this one isn’t the right one.

    • Submitted by Bob Barnes on 02/28/2020 - 09:51 am.

      Funding?? What? MN spends ~11 Billion a year on education (E-12)(25% of the state budget). That’s a ridiculous amount of money for the results. There is no funding shortage when it comes to education in MN. We spend over 10,000 per student and rank about middle of the road on spending nationwide.

      Minnesota’s public education problems lie elsewhere.

  7. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 02/27/2020 - 02:38 pm.

    For what little it’s worth, and speaking as a former classroom practitioner of 30 years in another state, I’m inclined against a constitutional amendment as a remedy for the substantial problems Minnesota students seem to be having.

    I don’t see how anyone could be opposed to a “quality education” for the state’s children, but the definition of “quality” could be – and to this jaundiced eye, likely will be – the source of much contention over upcoming months, years, even decades. Moreover, all three of the points raised by Education Minnesoat seem to me to be spot-on, given the wording of the proposal at the moment.

    I’ve never been a fan of standardized tests, especially as a measure of a student’s “success,” much less the “success” of a school or a school district. I continue to believe that schools don’t fail, and I’ve seen virtually no evidence that Minnesota schools somehow are exceptions to what I regard as a truism. What’s happening is that STUDENTS are failing. I’ve seen no evidence in print that subject matter is being presented to students of one community but not another, except, in some cases, for a lack of financial resources to do so in some communities, or a conscious choice on the part of a school board to limit curriculum in a particular way. If the school in question is actually “failing,” then there should be no “successful” students at that school, and that’s manifestly not the case. Unless the “successful” students are being taught skills that are being purposely withheld from those who are less-successful, the whole “failing schools” argument falls apart. A constitutional amendment will do nothing to ensure that a particular boy or girl will become a stellar student.

    I also want to see a funding guarantee from the legislature in the proposal. Much of the disparity in academic achievement between / among Minnesota school districts can be traced rather directly back to issues of finance. It’s my understanding – not being a native – that the “Minnesota miracle” of decades past has long since disappeared, and there are, once again, marked disparities between / among school districts in terms of the financial resources available to them per student. In large part, that seems to be true because the legislature has failed utterly to live up to its constitutional mandate for “uniform” school funding, which puts the financial burden back on the shoulders of local residents, some of whom are far more able to absorb a tax increase than others. When the legislature makes that financial burden a local one rather than a state one, the notion of “equal opportunity” becomes a cruel joke when communities are obviously not identical in terms of their resources.

    While I initially was enthused about the philosophy behind charter schools (this was 30 years ago), I’ve come to view them as entities that are too often leeches, sapping the strength of local school districts by bleeding off coherent groups of students, and the funding that goes with them. Where charters have developed techniques or approaches that are actually innovative and successful (the original motivation behind the notion of charter schools), they’ve too often been reluctant, and sometimes outright refused, to share their techniques and innovations with the larger school districts and the public that provides their funding. The effect is to resegregate public schools, not just racially, but also intellectually, economically and culturally – in effect to take us back to the Antebellum South, wherein plantation owners could afford to bring in tutors for their own children, or, in a pinch, to cooperate with neighboring plantation owners to fund a “select” school for the children of the local “comfortable” class, leaving the bulk of the population illiterate and uneducated altogether.

    Shifting power to families, as Ms. Vang suggests, is a two-edged sword, and some families would rather their children NOT learn specific subjects or topics. That can be more than a little awkward at school board meetings or parent-conference nights. At least that was my experience when I was in the classroom.

    The current system certainly appears to be inadequate, but that inadequacy is largely due to legislative and executive inaction – allowing the financial arrangements and commitments of decades past to dissipate over time. I don’t personally have an issue with public education becoming of “paramount importance” to state government, but I have quite a few misgivings about whether a constitutional amendment is the way to go about it, or will, in the end, be the solution every parent would like to see for their children, and those of their friends and neighbors.

    • Submitted by Bob Barnes on 02/28/2020 - 09:55 am.

      If a student isn’t proficient in a subject yet the school advances him/her to the next grade anyway how is that the student’s fault? That’s a failure Of the school to properly educate that student. It’s systemic too … schools just keep passing students that shouldn’t be advancing because of all the $$$ the school gets. Fix your policies and curriculum so that all kids learn the material and can pass tests to advance. The schools are failing because they refuse to fix their own problems.

      • Submitted by Ray Schoch on 02/28/2020 - 12:48 pm.

        I disagree, at least for the most part.

        Passing a student on to the next grade who shouldn’t be promoted, based on her skill level, isn’t the school’s fault. The onus for that decision belongs to an administrator – a human being, either at the school, or at the district level. It may also be a directive coming from the school board, where public pressure has been known to influence policies surrounding grading and promotion just as it has often done at the school and individual level. I had grades I’d assigned to students changed because of parental pressure that an administrator chose not to resist when the parents complained. That wasn’t the school’s fault. The onus belonged to that administrator – and, I’d argue, to the parents in question.

        To reiterate, schools don’t fail – they also don’t succeed. Individuals – students, teachers, parents, administrators, legislators – fail or succeed. Sometimes those results gain public or media attention, other times they don’t.

  8. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 02/27/2020 - 02:51 pm.

    Rep. Vang lives in Brooklyn Center.

  9. Submitted by Joe Musich on 02/27/2020 - 06:49 pm.

    I would rather see efforts return to ensuring that the 14th amendment applies to school equity.

  10. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 02/28/2020 - 05:41 am.

    Enacting this sort of constitutional amendment, to the degree it is effective, means turning over administration of education to the courts. I don’t really know why that’s a good idea, I certainly don’t know why anyone thinks that is a panacea for anything. By any measure the history of judicial intervention in education is a tortured one. Things neither started nor ended with Brown v. Board of Education.

  11. Submitted by Raj Maddali on 02/28/2020 - 05:57 am.

    Not a big fan of Teachers Unions. That said this Constitutional Amendment solves nothing. Equality is already granted by the Constitution (Federal and State). To pretend that systemic discrimination, lack of adequate facilities etc for minority children in Minnesota is the cause of the Achievement Gap is simply a fallacy.

    If you do a study of any of these under achieving groups you will find more correlation with being unprepared for daily school work etc than the supposed discrimination. That could be social factors etc, but changing the Constitution to enable endless feel good lawsuits is not the answer.

    Minnesota has a larger achievement gap cause white students are at a higher scoring level than other states. That does not make Minnesota a worse state than other states. Actually its the opposite. It points to the quality of the education system.

    • Submitted by Orville H. Larson on 02/29/2020 - 06:31 pm.

      You say you’re not a big fan of teachers’ unions. Nor am I. Teachers’ unions must bear much of the blame for the abysmal performance of our government–er, public schools.
      Teachers resist accountability, they oppose student testing, and they don’t like competition. Government–er, public schools–are a monopoly. They have no incentive to change the status quo.

      Also, my compliments to the DFLers who favor the proposed amendment. They’re not subservient to Education Minnesota.

  12. Submitted by James Baker on 02/28/2020 - 08:57 am.

    If the amendment specifically required all educator prep programs to train teachers to proficiency in evidence-based reading instruction and then require implementation of those skills in every Minnesota grade k-3 classroom, it might be more effective.

    What some states are doing to make this happen:

  13. Submitted by Bruce Pomerantz on 02/28/2020 - 08:02 pm.

    The amount of knowledge required to succeed after graduation can no longer be squeezed into the twelve nine-month school schedule that evolved for students during the agrarian 19th century. Lengthen the school year and extend the years required to graduate so students have the opportunity to learn the knowledge unknown during the 19th century.

  14. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 02/29/2020 - 06:06 am.

    When I first read of this proposal, I suggested to my school board friends that they should invite these guys to visit a classroom in their district. What I will expect they will find is that neither lawyers nor economists have much to say about what goes on there.

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