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.
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.
“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.”