Some big shots want to amend the Minnesota constitution to prioritize schools. Can it work?

By: - February 7, 2020 6:47 am

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A pair of prominent Minnesota leaders want to harness the power of words to address some of the nation’s worst racial disparities in education.

Minneapolis Federal Reserve President Neel Kashkari and retired state Supreme Court Justice Alan Page — the latter a Democrat, the former a Republican — have launched a campaign to amend the state’s constitution with language they say would guarantee a quality education for all children. They believe the change would have profound implications for Minnesota’s students.

Their proposal would replace language in the Minnesota Constitution requiring the Legislature “establish a general and uniform system of public schools” with a clause stating that “all children have a fundamental right to a quality public education” and that it is the “paramount duty of the state” to fulfill this right.

The proposed amendment illustrates the increasing sense of urgency among rarefied corners of Minnesota’s political and business elite about the state’s well-documented struggle to educate students of color, even as those students comprise a larger and larger share of the population.

Minnesota’s public school system is renowned as one of the nation’s best, but its failure to educate students from marginalized communities is especially evident in outcomes for Black, Indigenous and Latino children. About one in three children from these demographic groups are proficient in reading by fourth grade and in math by eighth grade, compared to more than half of all students, according to a Minneapolis Federal Reserve analysis.

Gov. Tim Walz has promised a plan to address disparities in the coming months, with a special focus on graduation rates — Minnesota’s black and Indigenous students have some of the lowest graduation rates in the nation. But while Walz and his Education Commissioner Mary Cathryn Ricker work on the details of their plan, Kashkari and Page have filled the vacuum. And they’ve drawn fierce opposition from the teachers union.

To make the suggestion a reality, legislators would first need to approve the language, and then it would appear on the ballot during a general election. Ratification would require a “yes” from a majority of voters.

If the proposal were adopted, the North Star State would be the second in the nation to make providing a quality education for all children a primary duty of its government, based on information compiled by the Federal Reserve. Advocates say the language could call attention to inequalities, spur legislative action and give families leverage to sue over substandard education.

Those can be powerful mechanisms for change, researchers say. 

“This may be the strongest statement of entitlement to a quality education in the country,” University of Washington researcher Paul Hill said of the proposed amendment. 

But Hill also wonders what happens next: “Then the question is, what’s the remedy [for student achievement]? What does it lead to? And this provision in the constitution doesn’t define that. It doesn’t because it can’t.”

In other words, an amendment wouldn’t be a straightforward solution. Without a targeted effort to understand and address the roots of Minnesota’s educational disparities, which extend far beyond classrooms, the change wouldn’t improve outcomes, experts say. Plus, equity lawsuits move slowly, meaning families likely wouldn’t see the effects of litigation for years — if lawsuits are successful. 

Lawsuits to improve learning

Although there are no studies on the effects of constitutional language on student outcomes, anecdotal evidence suggests litigation based on state constitutions has a track record of spurring policy change that leads to student success, said Scott Sargrad, vice president of K-12 policy at the liberal-leaning Washington-based think tank Center for American Progress.

Sargrad cited lawsuits in New Jersey and Massachusetts. In separate suits, residents successfully argued the states weren’t meeting their constitutional obligations to provide an adequate education for students, resulting in sweeping reforms in education finance and accountability. The reforms not only reshaped policy but also increased equity in access and resources to underserved schools, he said.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act is another case study showing how lawsuits can lead to better outcomes for students, Sargrad said. The federal law gave parents leverage to sue when their children with disabilities were excluded or denied appropriate services at school, forcing more districts to comply with the law.

Education Minnesota, the union representing 80,000 educators, opposes the proposal to amend Minnesota’s constitution. The organization said in a written statement that the real problem is school funding, not constitutional language.

“This amendment favors parents who can afford to hire attorneys to advocate for their own children, probably at the expense of families with fewer resources. That is the opposite of education equity,” Education Minnesota President Denise Specht said in the statement. “Minnesota schools are failing too many students of color and students in poverty. We shouldn’t expect their families to wait on the courts, which will take years.”

Equity lawsuits aren’t always slam-dunks. They often meander through courts while families and educators wait years for a decision — if there’s a decision at all.

In 2019, Florida justices tossed out a lawsuit that alleged the state wasn’t meeting its constitutional duty to provide a high-quality education for all students. The decision came roughly two decades after Florida voters approved an amendment adding that language to its constitution, giving it the nation’s strongest education provision.

The Florida court said the issue was a matter for the Legislature, not the judicial system, essentially invalidating the education clause. The decision “eviscerates” the amendment, one justice wrote in a dissent. Without judicial action, constitutional protections are “hollow phrases of nothingness,” another dissenting justice wrote.

Similarly in Minnesota, a court dismissed an education segregation lawsuit against the state because it presented a “nonjusticiable political question” in 2017.

In Louisiana, a curious case study

The constitutional amendment strategy has worked in other states, the Minneapolis Federal Reserve says, including Louisiana, home to one of the most controversial and radical education reforms in recent U.S. history: the state takeover of nearly all New Orleans public schools after Hurricane Katrina.

In Louisiana, a 2003 amendment gave the state the power to take over failing schools. The constitutional change and subsequent post-Katrina reforms resulted in “substantial achievement gains” for low-income students, a Federal Reserve paper says.

The Minneapolis Fed report doesn’t mention that the state turned failing schools over to nonprofit entities, creating the nation’s first district made up almost entirely of charter schools. More than 7,000 public school employees — many of them Black educators — were fired. 

Graduation rates and overall student achievement have improved, but not all residents believe students are better off now. 

A 2019 study found a split in residents’ perceptions of schools before and after the reforms. A majority of white New Orleans residents believe schools have improved, while most Black residents don’t. The divide is a result of the Black community’s loss of control during the reforms, the study suggests, which shifted local political power away from Black residents and into the hands of predominantly white state officials and charter boards.

Anusha Nath, a Federal Reserve economist who co-authored the Fed report, said the article is intended to provide broad context about amendments to states’ education clauses, not an exhaustive account of reforms. A forthcoming study will examine educational data spanning 30 years to understand the relationship between constitutional language, state policy and academic achievement, Nath said.

State Education Clauses, Minneapolis Federal Reserve by Rilyn Eischens on Scribd

Richard Baker, a long-time Louisiana educator who opposes the reforms, said New Orleans residents no longer have influence over how their schools operate. He wishes the state and school districts had worked with communities to identify education problems and solutions, rather than resorting to takeovers.

“How do we engage citizens in better conversations about these issues? How do we get the public to see that a public education system is in its best interest?” Baker said. “The answer isn’t ‘blow the system up.’”

The Minneapolis Fed article also describes a 1998 amendment to the Florida Constitution that made it the state’s “paramount duty” to provide an “efficient, safe, secure, and high quality” system of schools.

The Florida Legislature enacted a slew of education reforms in the next decade affecting teacher certification, attendance monitoring and class sizes, among other changes. The state also reorganized its education governance system and established voluntary universal preschool.

Florida State University researcher Patrice Iatarola said it’s difficult to tease out the exact effects of education policy, especially when a flurry of new laws are passed. Still, evidence suggests that Florida’s improved academic outcomes are linked to the state’s reforms in accountability and standards, she said.

Research, discussion to change status quo

A campaign to change the state constitution could put student outcomes in the spotlight, pressuring educators and policymakers to act, said Hill, founder of the University of Washington’s Center on Reinventing Public Education.

But a constitutional amendment won’t change anything except words if it’s not accompanied by a serious effort to get to the bottom of Minnesota’s education issues, Hill said. Too often, policymakers dedicate their energy to resolutions that won’t create change while the problems at hand are neglected, he said.

Page and Kashkari have acknowledged that the amendment alone wouldn’t solve the state’s problems. Page said during a public discussion of the proposal in January that he believes it would motivate the Legislature to implement more effective education policies.

“What is the system going to look like 20 years from now? I don’t know. Justice Page doesn’t know. But we do know that children will be first,” Kashkari said during the discussion. “The paramount duty of the state will be ensuring that every child in Minnesota gets a quality education.”

Minneapolis Federal Reserve President Neel Kashkari
Neel Kashkari, president of Minneapolis Federal Reserve

A Federal Reserve spokesperson said Kashkari was unavailable for an interview.

A handful of prominent Minnesotans have signed onto the proposal, including Attorney General Keith Ellison, State Reps. Rena Moran and Jay Xiong and several business leaders. Gov. Tim Walz, the former teacher who has made education a focal point of his first term, has not taken an explicit stance on the proposal. He told reporters during a recent forum that his office welcomes the “great conversation starter” and expressed a few points of hesitation about the concept.

“One thing I would caution against is, we have a lot of provisions from Brown v. Board of Education and others that have asked us to do this, and we still have not got there,” Walz said.

He also said he’d like to see the proposed language specifically mention race.

“I think we need to call it what it is in the proposed amendment language. We need to say race,” Walz said. “[Race] is what this is about.”

Minnesota Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, who previously said Senate Republicans wouldn’t support the proposal, told reporters during the same forum that he’s open to the idea.

“I’m willing to explore it because what we have been doing has not been working,” Gazelka said. “Let’s not be afraid to look at reforms.”

Annie Mason, program director of elementary teacher education at the University of Minnesota, said she’s excited to see the conversation around educational outcomes taking center stage in Minnesota, but she worries the discussion will focus too much on a single institutional solution without taking into account the nation’s lengthy history of neglecting the education of marginalized students.

In her work with prospective elementary school teachers, Mason focuses on the concept of “educational debt” the nation owes marginalized communities after centuries of educational inequity, rather than the achievement gap. That perspective helps educators recognize the systemic factors affecting children in school today, she said — a mindset she hopes Minnesotans will adopt when considering how to improve education for disadvantaged children.

“When we see the vast inequities that don’t match the espoused progressiveness of a state like Minnesota, we need to connect that to major problems in schools and in other sectors. I get worried when our public conversation zooms in too quickly,” she said.

Effective efforts to improve student opportunities and outcomes extend beyond classrooms, said Ronald Ferguson, the director of Harvard University’s Achievement Gap Initiative. They take into account every setting a child spends time in, like homes, afterschool programs and community spaces, and require not just sufficient funding but also education and accountability for adults.

Researchers also point to policies that funnel more funding to underserved schools, improve and standardize educator training and ensure quality teachers are spread across districts — not just at the wealthiest schools — as key to helping all students succeed. Before legislators pass new laws, it’s critical to study disparities in schools and engage community members to understand how the systems are working and not working for families, Ferguson said.

“If we pause and reflect, we can understand that schools are both a reflection and driver of society. That’s so deeply interconnected with and rooted in history, and interconnected with housing, the economy, the climate, government structures,” Mason said.

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Rilyn Eischens
Rilyn Eischens

Rilyn Eischens is a former data reporter for the Minnesota Reformer. Rilyn was born and raised in Minnesota and has worked in newsrooms in the Twin Cities, Iowa, Texas and most recently Virginia, where she covered education for The Staunton News Leader. She's an alumna of the Dow Jones News Fund data journalism program and the Minnesota Daily. When Rilyn isn't in the newsroom, she likes to read, add to her plant collection and try new recipes.