If the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis has taught us anything it is that police and social justice reform are sorely needed in Minnesota. One reform that must be tackled is the ever-growing achievement gap in public education and the fact children of color, American Indian children and low-income white children continue to have far worse educational outcomes.

How to reverse the downward trend is a task legislators need to address and soon. Earlier this year the Adams Publishing/ECM Editorial Board heard from former Supreme Court Justice Alan Page and Minneapolis Federal Reserve President Neel Kashkari who have a proposal for a constitutional amendment that would guarantee a fundamental right to a quality public education. As currently written, we think the proposed amendment needs additional work, but the discussion of the amendment intent is important now.

Had the coronavirus pandemic not crippled this legislative session, the amendment may have been fully weighed by lawmakers and sent to the voters. The special session that started June 12 may not provide that discussion as police reforms, rebuilding riot-torn areas of the Twin Cities and bonding will be front and center.

Minnesota’s constitution was enacted in 1857 and states “it is the duty of the legislature to establish a general and uniform system of public schools” and “make such provisions by taxation or otherwise as will secure a thorough and efficient system of public schools throughout the state.”

The proposed amendment reads: “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.”

The proposal comes from a Federal Reserve Bank study that concludes a stronger constitution guarantees help by putting power in the hands of parents to ensure that “their children receive a quality education.” If the focus can be placed on children and educational outcomes, legislators and policymakers will be motivated to enact innovative policy changes that put children first, the report said. If those results don’t follow, change through the courts is an option for parents.

The premise of the Page/Kashkari proposal is hard to dispute. But there is more to the subject than simply amending the constitution. Any change in the education clause of the constitution should be accompanied by an understanding of the original authors’ intent.

From the time Minnesota was a territory to statehood in 1858 communities established schools. A school grew out of the needs of settlers. Equally important was the provision of the Northwest Ordinance that assigned two sections of each township (a township is comprised of 36 section that are each a mile square) to support schools. The size of districts, duration of the school day, length and timing of the school year and access to teaching materials and teachers varied.

The constitution framers saw the problem and the need for authorization was placed in the constitution. Thus the education clause that exists today was written.

Many challenges have been addressed under the constitution. Consider the year 2000 and Skeen v. the State of Minnesota. Districts with low per-pupil property value sued the state saying their children were treated unfairly compared to children in higher per-pupil property value districts. In finding that the solution rests with the legislature and not the court, the majority of the court said education under the present constitutional language is a fundamental right of all Minnesota children.

The rationale for the amendment needs articulation and rewriting if it is to move forward. The amendment would link the right to education to the performance of a student or class of students on a standard or measure of success. Equal educational opportunity isn’t the criteria; educational performance is.

Amendment proponents point to the greatest problem this country faces: the distribution of quality of life by racial and economic class, including the right to learn. The solutions to achieving a right to learn are not only in the classroom, but also the neighborhood, the family, the place of work and the impact of employment on physical and social mobility.

Without greater articulation of court-mandated changes, there is a risk of unintended consequences. Will this amendment have meaningful impact on social injustice in education? It’s time to find that answer.

— An editorial from the Adams Publishing/ECM Editorial Board. TReactions are welcome at editorial.board@apgecm.com.

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