Education constitutional amendment is our best shot at racial equity

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The world is watching Minnesota, fixated on one of the most consequential trials in history. Will the state of Minnesota lead the way in dismantling American racism, which found its most tragic expression at the knee of Derek Chauvin in May 2020?

The picture of Chauvin, a white man, on top of George Floyd, a Black man, is an apt metaphor for racial disparities in Minnesota. The disproportionate killing of Black men notwithstanding, these disparities prevail in wealth, health, income, homeownership, incarceration, longevity and education.

In her acclaimed book, “Caste; Origins of Our Discontent,” Isabel Wilkerson refers to this as America’s unspoken caste system – “a rigid system of social stratification … where white people are on top in almost every aspect of American life, all other non-white groups are below them with African Americans on the very bottom.” 

As a 24-year resident of north Minneapolis, a disproportionately African American community, I have witnessed this tragic caste system at work, with my Black, low-income neighbors relegated to the lowest rungs of society.

I have witnessed white Minnesotans disproportionately benefiting from a state, consistently in the top five for quality of life, business climate, workforce and education, while ranking lowest in the nation in these same outcomes for Black Minnesotans.

I have witnessed, most detrimentally, our education system excel at educating white students while persistently failing to educate our Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) children, resulting in Minnesota’s worst-in-the-nation racial education disparities. We know that to improve outcomes for BIPOC Minnesotans, we must start with education. 

Educational attainment and achievement are two of the most important indicators of a person’s ability to enter the workforce, earn a livable wage, own a home, attain health care, be treated with dignity and then raise a family equally endowed.

It’s sad, but not surprising, that we live in a state in which seven out of 10 Black fourth-graders cannot read at a fourth-grade reading level, and 32% of Black Minnesotans are living in poverty as compared to 7% of white Minnesotans. 

We must change. We can start by eradicating the hidden caste system and the racial disparities that predictably relegate white kids to the corporate suites and BIPOC kids to cleaning them.

We must agree that all our children will receive quality education no matter their race, family income or background. To achieve the unprecedented, we must do what has never been done before.

It is time to pass an amendment to the state constitution, first proposed by former Minnesota Supreme Court Justice Alan Page and Minneapolis Federal Reserve President Neel Kashkari. It seeks to address persistent education disparities by establishing a civil right to quality public education for all Minnesotans, challenging the status quo of the caste system we have inherited and maintain. 

The amendment will change the outdated language of the state constitution, which only requires the state to provide an adequate public education to Minnesota children. Some say that adequacy is a concept with a “robust legal meaning.” In practice, however, it means Minnesota ranks 47th in the nation for American Indian students and 50th in the nation for Black and Hispanic students for graduating on time. 

Today, the word “quality” doesn’t have legal meaning in Minnesota because we have never tried to define it. We were too busy defining “adequate.” But ask any parent, and I assure you they can describe what quality would look like for their child.

When the amendment passes, state legislators, educators and Minnesota families will need to come together to create community-based policy and define “quality” for our public school students — not people outside of our state, legal scholars or lawyers. It will be created by Minnesota educators in partnership with people like me and people like you. 

We cannot let unfounded fears of lawsuits — which have not been realized in any other state — or fears of the unknown keep us from the passage of this amendment. Amending our country’s constitution is how our forebears righted egregious inequities of their time guaranteeing me, for example, as an African American woman, the freedom to lead and realize my full potential under the 13th and 19th Amendments.

In a similar fashion, the states that have amended their constitution to ensure quality education for all are eradicating their education gaps in unprecedented ways. Accepting things as “the way it has always been” leaves us with the lowest quality education for our BIPOC children. 

In the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder, leaders across the state made commitments to end racial injustice and inequities in every sphere of public life. Passing the Page-Kashkari Amendment is a powerful way to codify that commitment, first in our hearts, and then in the highest law of our state so that all children are guaranteed the quality public education they deserve.

You would do it if your child was underserved. Why not do it for all children?