Counterpoint: The Page Amendment would guarantee the right to a quality public education | Opinion
This commentary is a response to a recent Reformer guest commentary in opposition to the Page Amendment.
The Page Amendment now before the Minnesota Legislature is a bipartisan effort of DFL and Republican legislators in both chambers. If adopted, it would guarantee the right to a quality public education to every child, in every district, statewide. Ensuring quality public schools that fulfill this fundamental right would be the state’s “paramount duty”— in other words, its highest priority, bar none.
The text 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 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.
Why do we call it the “Page Amendment”? Because its author and chief proponent is retired Minnesota Supreme Court Justice Alan Page. With his wife Diane Sims Page, Page founded the Page Education Foundation, and he has devoted himself to ending the achievement gap for minority students. As he has explained: “A quality education is without question the most powerful tool we have to break the cycle of poverty and create a society in which everyone can fully participate. It doesn’t just change one child’s life. It has the potential to improve the future for generations to come.”
The status quo is not working for our children. The Minnesota Constitution’s current Education Clause dates to 1857, before the Civil War. Today, Minnesota’s education gaps are among the nation’s worst. We have one of the largest college readiness gaps by race and ethnicity, trailing states such as Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana and South Carolina. Minnesota has the lowest graduation rates nationwide for students of color. The gaps in standardized test scores between white and minority students, and wealthy and lower income students, are getting larger — not smaller — over time.
In drafting the amendment, Page recognized that the current Education Clause perpetuates these disparities. The Page Amendment seeks to ensure equal educational opportunity — at a high level — for every child. The Amendment does not eliminate any protections in the current law; it strengthens current law by establishing the equal right to a quality public education for all Minnesota children.
But as we saw in last week’s opinion piece, there are those who prefer the status quo. The persistent — and growing — achievement gap should be proof enough that our children deserve better. Even beyond that, here’s what those content with the status quo get wrong — and what the Page Amendment gets right.
1. Offering a quality public education to every child.
Under current law, there is no right to a quality education. Since 1857, the only relevant case is the Minnesota Supreme Court’s decision in Skeen v. State (1993). While the Skeen court recognized a fundamental right with respect to education, the ruling was narrow and limited in many important ways. Critically, Skeen did not recognize a right to a “quality” education. Skeen never addressed individual student achievement. The court instead set a low bar of adequacy and discussed it only in terms of systemic funding.
The court recognized only a right “to a ‘general and uniform system of education’ which provides an adequate education to all students in Minnesota.” The court upheld the present system because it provided “uniform funding to each student in the state in an amount sufficient to generate an adequate level of education which meets all state standards.” (Emphases added.)
But as Page has said, “What parent wants their child to have only an ‘adequate’ education? None — we all aspire for excellence for our children.” Page dissented from Skeen because he understood that it would only perpetuate educational disparities.
Minnesota’s nation-worst achievement gaps over the past 30 years have proven Page right. For this reason, the Page Amendment ensures “quality public education” and “quality public schools.” Raising the baseline from “adequate” to “quality” provides every child with the opportunity to succeed.
2. Focusing on the child, not the system.
The current Education Clause requires the Legislature to establish “a general and uniform system of public schools” that is “thorough” and “efficient.” The Page Amendment removes this language and instead guarantees each child a fundamental right to a quality public education. The status quo wrongly focuses on the statewide system, thereby harming the individual child and deepening educational disparities.
The decision in Skeen is a prime example. The court did not hold, as the opinion piece suggests, that the state must “provide and fund an equal school system across the state.” Skeen held the exact opposite. The court actually approved of funding disparities across school districts. Why? Because the narrow right recognized in Skeen was limited to “a general and adequate system of education.” (Emphasis added.) The funding disparities across districts were permissible because the statewide system remained adequate. The plaintiffs still were “receiving an adequate level of basic education,” and there were not “inadequacies in the levels of basic funding, and consequently, a deficient overall level of education.”
Under Skeen and the current Education Clause, the only right is to overall systemic adequacy — no matter the educational needs of individual children. As Page wrote in his dissent, this approach “ignores the intended beneficiary of our education system: the children who attend our schools.” It is not enough for the “system” as a whole to function at some baseline level, granting some children access to a quality education, but not others. The Page Amendment returns the focus to where it belongs: the equal right of every child to a quality public education.
3. Establishing the state’s paramount duty to ensure quality public schools.
The Page Amendment significantly strengthens, not weakens, the education rights of all Minnesota children in every school district. Under current law, the Legislature’s duty extends only to funding an “adequate” system of education. The Amendment makes it the state’s “paramount duty” to ensure “quality public schools” that fulfill every child’s fundamental right to a quality public education. As a practical matter, what does this mean? It is impossible to achieve a quality public education for every child statewide without proper funding. The Amendment enshrines “quality public schools” as the state’s highest priority — including funding priority — in every district statewide, whether urban, rural, or other.
What’s more, the amendment makes education the paramount duty of the state, not just the Legislature. Future Minnesota governors and legislators will be bound to enact and enforce laws that ensure quality public schools statewide. And litigation will remain available as needed. As history has shown — for example, with Brown v. Board of Education (1954) — judicial involvement is, at times, essential for recognizing and protecting the rights of all. The Page Amendment embeds the judiciary’s role — as well as the distinct roles of the Legislature and governor — in the constitution’s text. There is no merit to any suggestion that the Page Amendment reduces avenues for judicial relief. It considerably bolsters education rights and cements the role of all three branches.
We cannot close without addressing the opinion piece’s assertion that the “destruction of public education is the goal of some.” Nothing could be further from the truth. Look again at the Page Amendment’s text. In 99 short words, it refers multiple times to “quality public schools” and “quality public education” — making them a “paramount duty” of the state. The author’s suggestion that the amendment is a backdoor scheme to prefer private schools is baseless. The Page Amendment means what it says: The state will have no higher duty than supporting quality public schools. While parents retain their existing right to choose an alternative to public schools, that does not obligate the state to fund those schools. The state’s “paramount duty” is to public education and public schools.
Similarly, the author’s opposition to charter schools has nothing to do with the Page Amendment. The Cruz-Guzman case is a challenge to high-performing charter schools that serve predominantly children of color, such as Friendship Academy and Higher Ground Academy, whose attorneys include the prominent civil rights activist Nekima Levy Armstrong. The author apparently joins with the plaintiffs in opposing these schools. Most recently, however, the district court soundly rejected the plaintiffs’ core claim that the racial make-up of these schools violates the current Education Clause. The district court thus denied all relief requested.
In any event, the Cruz-Guzman suit has no relation to the Page Amendment. The U.S. Supreme Court addressed state-sponsored intentional segregation decades ago in Brown v. Board: “Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.” If anything, the Page Amendment builds on Brown. The amendment requires not just a “quality public education,” but specifically one “that fully prepares children with the skills necessary for participation in the economy, our democracy, and society.”
By ensuring that all children are fully prepared for today’s world, the amendment moves us forward with language designed for the 21st Century and beyond — rather than be restricted by text that predates the Civil War.
Page has explained that “by accepting adequacy for some children, we perpetuate disparity for all children.” Just last month, the Office of the Legislative Auditor recognized that “Minnesota’s achievement gaps are some of the largest in the nation.” Amendment advocates range from community advocacy organizations like the West Central Initiative and Minnesota Africans United, to business community leaders like the Minnesota Business Partnership. Endorsers include groups dedicated to the equitable education of all students, such as Great MN Schools, Ed Allies, Teach For America Twin Cities, and more. Another key supporter is the Minneapolis Federal Reserve, whose role is to research and address barriers to full employment.
The Page Amendment puts all of Minnesota’s children first by making it the state’s highest priority to ensure a quality public education for every child, in every district, statewide. Our children deserve no less.
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