To understand how much a proposed state constitutional amendment championed by Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis President and CEO Neel Kashkari and retired Minnesota Supreme Court Justice Alan Page has mixed up politics at the Capitol, the first thing to know is that Republican Sens. Roger Chamberlain and Michelle Benson have a position on the issue, as do DFL legislators Charles Wiger and Hodan Hassan.
The second thing to know is that the positions of those respective lawmakers on the amendment — which would make it the “paramount duty” of the state to provide all children with a quality public education — might not be what’s you’d expect.
Chamberlain, the conservative chair of the Senate Education Committee, and that committee’s liberal DFL ranking member, Wiger, are both opposed to what’s become known as the Page Amendment.
Meanwhile, Benson, the conservative chair of the Senate Health Finance Committee and a GOP candidate for governor, and Hassan, the progressive vice chair of the House Education Policy Committee, are for it; in fact, they are the prime sponsors in the Senate and House, respectively.
And while people on both sides of the issue speak about the need to support public schools in Minnesota, funding them adequately and addressing the striking inequities between students of color and their white classmates, they disagree — often strenuously and in surprising combinations — over how the amendment might help or hurt the state’s ability to address those issues.
“I’ve spent a considerable amount of time talking with Justice Page,” said Denise Specht, the president of the state teachers union, Education Minnesota, which is a leading opponent of the amendment. “We’ve had great conversations. We have a lot of agreement and we believe in many of the same things. We just don’t agree on how to get there on this particular issue.”
Grew out of 2019 study
The amendment grew out of conversations between Page and Kashkari over a 2019 Federal Reserve study that identified Minnesota as having some of the most stark education disparities in the country.
“Minnesota’s education achievement gaps across race and socioeconomic status have persisted for decades despite our state implementing policies to promote equal opportunity for education, including school choice, changes in teacher compensation and evaluation systems, and equalizing per capita funding across districts,” that study concluded.
The amendment was first introduced in 2020, but the initial push to get it on the ballot — which requires a majority vote of the state House and Senate — was derailed, like so many other things, by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Supporters are making another push this year, and Our Children, the organization formed to advocate for the amendment, has enlisted a dozen lobbyists, including two former legislators, to get the measure passed so that it can be on the ballot in November.
Nevada Littlewolf, the executive director of Our Children, said the coalition includes groups ranging from the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce to those that represent people of color and the state’s tribal nations. The impact of disparities on students of color is why many of the leading sponsors are legislators of color, she said. “They understand it, they get it and they understand the urgency of passing this and getting it onto the ballot,” Littlewolf said.
Opposition from Education Minnesota is the primary hurdle, though Littlewolf said backers have been working with union leaders and have discussed language changes.
“We’ll see those concerns addressed as the chief author brings forward an amendment,” she said. “But there is comfort in the status quo and people knowing what it is and how to operate within the status quo. When you are bringing something as transformational as the Page Amendment forward, people get afraid about, ‘What does it mean?’”
As proposed the amendment is brief, as is what it replaces, especially given the complexities of policies involved.
The relevant language in the current Minnesota constitution, which was written before the Civil War, says that, “it is the duty of the legislature to establish a general and uniform system of public schools. The legislature shall make such provisions by taxation or otherwise as will secure a thorough and efficient system of public schools throughout the state.”
The Page Amendment would change the constitution to replace those words with this: “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 a paramount duty of the state to ensure quality public schools that fulfill this fundamental right.”
An FAQ about the amendment posted on the website of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis explains: “We believe this amendment will lead to legislative and regulatory changes to improve educational outcomes, but if those changes prove insufficient, ultimately families will be able to turn to the courts to have their children’s rights vindicated.”
The Minneapolis Fed also has created a dashboard that allows residents of the state to see how disparities affect most districts of the state, not just Minneapolis and St. Paul.
How big of a change?
While the two constitutional clauses might seem similar, there are some key words and phrases that could lead to changes, say both proponents and opponents of the amendment.
For example, while “paramount duty” is included in just two other state constitutions in the U.S. — Washington’s and Florida’s — it has been interpreted as making education a duty above all other government functions.
Thomas Ahearne, the lead attorney in litigation brought against Washington state who used the “paramount duty” clause in that state to eventually win large increases in school funding, told MinnPost in 2020 that replacing “the legislature” with “the state” assigns the paramount duty to all three branches of government, not just lawmakers. And the phrase “all children” has been interpreted in Washington to mean succeeding with most students isn’t enough.
Opponents of the amendment have expressed worry that removing the phrase “uniform system of public schools” could open the door to private school vouchers or other uses of tax dollars for non-public schools, and say the amendment is part of a national strategy brought forth by “right-wing think tanks.”
“These clauses have been a barrier to voucher laws, which provide public funding to private schools that can, and do, discriminate against students for their gender, religion or physical and cognitive abilities,” states an Education Minnesota position paper on the amendment.
A group of 22 legal and civil rights scholars representing the Education Law Center has also said that the language changes could endanger Minnesota case law supporting adequate funding and desegregation.
“At first glance, this amended language appears to preserve the fundamental right and the legislative duty provided by the existing constitutional provision,” the group wrote in a letter to the Minnesota Legislature. “However, the proposed text qualifies the state’s fundamental right with the clause ‘as measured against uniform achievement standards set forth by the state.’ As a result, the proposed amendment may encourage courts to measure rights through the narrow lens of tested academic achievement. The addition of several adjectives – ‘quality’ and ‘paramount’ – has no clear legal effect, as these terms have no pre-established meaning in Minnesota law.”
During a panel discussion earlier this month before the Association of Metropolitan School Districts, Chamberlain said the amendment could lead to the courts deciding education policy and funding. “It’s not needed, it won’t change a thing on the ground except cause a lot of problems,” the Lino Lakes Republican said.
Benson, R-Ham Lake, said she had not initially supported the Page Amendment but came on board with the condition that a provision related to private, religious and home schools be added. “The duty of the state established in this section does not infringe on the right of a parent to choose for their child a private, religious or home school as an alternative to public education,” reads the provision.
“We learned that more than anything, parental control of education is going to be the key toward its success,” Benson said. “And as we look at declining test scores in the state of Minnesota, it’s time for a fundamental change.”
Hassan, DFL-Minneapolis, said her support — and the support of many members of the Legislature’s People of Color and Indigenous (POCI) Caucus — comes from personal experience with public schools and a close-up view of disparities. “I’m a firm believer in public education,” Hassan said. “I’m a product of public education and my children are a product of public education.”
She supports fully funding public schools so teachers can concentrate on teaching instead of budgets. “But even if we fully fund education today, we’re still going to run into systemic barriers,” she said. “If you have a toolbox and there are many different tools and you don’t know which one to choose, you’re gonna try all of them.”
The DFL and Education Minnesota are political allies, and the union has long been a major part of the DFL’s electoral coalition. That has kept most of the party’s top elected officials on the sidelines, with only Attorney General Keith Ellison supporting the amendment.
Hassan said she has been talking to the union leaders and said she and Page are open to changes to address concerns, including with the uniformity language.
For her part, Specht said she was encouraged by Hassan’s willingness to discuss changes, though she said she isn’t sure it will be enough to change the union’s position. “The uniformity clause was one of our big concerns,” she said. “Removing the clause is part of the national strategy from big money groups to privatize public education, so (maintaining it) would be a step in the right direction. But codifying standardized tests in the constitution is incredibly problematic.”
Hassan, however, disagrees with the notion that the amendment is a backdoor way to privatize education or harm teachers unions. “Justice Page is a champion for education who has dedicated most of his life advocating for better outcomes for our students of color. He would not support something that hurts education, and I wouldn’t either,” Hassan said.
Criticism from left and right
Though the amendment is named for Page, most of the criticism over the proposal has been aimed at Kashkari. The Fed generally is not an advocacy organization, and outside of being invited to speak to lawmakers about economic issues, bank officials are not a regular presence in St. Paul.
Since becoming president of the Minneapolis Fed, however, Kashkari has focused his staff on economic equity issues, and the amendment is part of that work, he says.
But it has nevertheless led to questions from both the teachers union and conservatives about using an independent, federal agency to advocate for state policies, especially for a change in a state’s constitution.
In a column last May in the Wall Street Journal, James Freeman, an editor on the paper’s editorial page, said Kashkari is “breaking tradition” to support the amendment and quotes a pair of former Fed presidents calling it into question. “It is one thing to say you think education is important and needs improvement, which I probably said many times, but it is another to essentially lobby for a specific proposal or bill,” wrote former Philadelphia Fed president Charles Plosser.
That same month, U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pennsylvania, the ranking GOP member of the Senate Banking Committee, wrote a letter asking that Kashkari brief the committee staff on the Minneapolis Fed’s “sudden and alarming preoccupation” with “political advocacy”: “I would caution you on the reputational damage being inflicted on the Minneapolis Fed and the Federal Reserve as a whole by pursuing a highly politicized social agenda unrelated to monetary policy.”
Last week, the Minnesota based conservative group Center of the American Experiment sent a letter to Fed Chair Jerome Powell questioning whether Kashkari and his staff are violating federal law.
“Mr. Kashkari and the Minneapolis Fed are not only identified with controversial political activity, they are the face of this activity,” wrote senior policy fellow Peter Nelson. “The Minneapolis Fed’s code of conduct could not be clearer, ‘Although an employee may participate or become involved in issues of general public concern or debate, the employee’s association with the Bank must not be publicized in connection with any political activity.’”
Kashkari has defended his actions as an allowable extension of one of the Fed’s congressional mandates: to maximize employment. During a presentation to the St. Paul Chamber Wednesday, Kashkari said it is an extension of the Fed’s past advocacy for education, including early childhood education. “That work is ongoing and it has strong bipartisan support, which we’re very very proud of,” he said.
Kashkari also spoke of his work on economic justice during the presentation. “After George Floyd was murdered in Minneapolis, my colleagues and I asked what more can we do on the issue of racial equity and to try to make sure the economy is inclusive of everyone in our society,” he said. Along with the Atlanta Fed, he launched a series of conferences on “Racism and the Economy,” and created the “Opportunity and Inclusive Growth Institute.”
Donors not disclosed
Minnesota’s lobbying reporting laws are relatively weak, requiring only reports by lobbying entities of total spending and by individual lobbyists of how much they spent on any topic. Our Children reported that it spent $80,000 in 2020. The 2021 reports are not due until March 15 and this year’s activities not until March of 2023.
If the measure should reach the ballot, campaign finance reporting laws kick in, said Jeff Sigurdson, the executive director of the Campaign Finance Board. “Hypothetically, if a ballot question committee is formed, the committee would need to report all cash and in-kind contributions it received for the purpose of supporting or defeating the constitutional amendment – including from the Federal Reserve if appropriate,” Sigurdson said.
Our Children’s Littlewolf said the group has both 501(c)3 status and a 501(c)4 status, the latter allowing it under federal tax code to engage directly in political activity. Donors to 501(c)4’s are not required to be disclosed, however, and Littlewolf said she would not do so at their request. But she dubbed claims that a single wealthy donor is behind it, “a conspiracy theory.”
“We have such a wide swath of donors who are engaged in this. We don’t have one donor who has come in,” Littlewolf said.
The lack of transparency is troubling to Specht of Education Minnesota. “I just have to wonder, where is the money coming from?” she asked. “At a minimum, if we’re going to entertain a constitutional amendment that affects something as foundational as public education, we should actually know who’s behind the curtain.”