An NFL-Star-Turned-Judge and a Federal Reserve President Want to Amend Minnesota’s Constitution to Require Quality Schools

Former Minnesota Supreme Court Justice and NFL superstar Alan Page, left, and Minneapolis Federal Reserve Bank President Neel Kashkari. (Beth Hawkins)

Two prominent Minnesotans have sent shock waves through the education community with a proposal to amend the state Constitution with what they say would be the strongest state public education clause in the nation. If adopted, the amendment would recognize a universal “fundamental right to a quality public education.”

“We think it can be transformational because the current Constitution focuses on an education system that is adequate,” said former Minnesota Supreme Court justice Alan Page, one of the proposed amendment’s authors. “It focuses on the system and inputs. Our proposal focuses on children and outcomes.”

The Minnesota Constitution’s existing education clause dates to 1857, added co-author Neel Kashkari, president of the Minneapolis Federal Reserve Bank.

“We think that this can break through the political logjams that have been barriers to transformational reforms by literally putting children first,” said Kashkari. “When other states have amended their Constitutions, the first thing that has typically happened is big legislative changes have followed.”

The move follows last fall’s release of research by Federal Reserve economists confirming that Minnesota has worst-in-the-nation gaps between academic results for affluent white children and for low-income whites, children of color and Native American children. The disparities have persisted for decades, the economists noted, and are found in all types of public schools.

Minneapolis Federal Reserve Bank

The amendment proposal has high-profile support from a diverse and bipartisan array of civic leaders, education advocates and heads of communities of color and several of the state’s Native nations. Kashkari is a Republican and practicing Hindu. Page is an African American with a history of supporting Democratic candidates and causes.

The proposal drew swift and vociferous opposition from the state’s teachers union, Education Minnesota, whose president warned on social media that the amendment would eliminate the state’s obligation to fund schools and open the door to private school vouchers.

“Removing the state’s requirement of paying for a uniform public education has been a goal of pro-voucher groups for years and the agenda of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC),” Denise Specht tweeted. “MN has rejected ALEC because it favors polluters, union-busters and corporate welfare.”

“This amendment is a distraction. The legislature should just do its job — fully fund our schools.”

Asked whether there was further comment, an Education Minnesota spokesman pointed to a press release issued in response to the proposal.

At a press conference announcing the proposal, Kashkari and Page rejected that interpretation. If anything, they said, replacing the Constitution’s requirement that lawmakers provide an adequate system of schools with one mandating access to a “quality” education would force state officials to make K-12 schools a higher priority.

Consistently one of the state’s biggest political donors, the union wields considerable clout with Democratic lawmakers, whose buy-in will be necessary for the proposal to advance at the statehouse. Majorities in both the state House of Representatives and Senate would need to vote to put the proposed amendment on the ballot.

The Constitution currently calls for a “Uniform System of Public Schools.” “The stability of a republican form of government depending mainly upon the intelligence of the people, it is the duty of the legislature to establish a general and uniform system of public schools,” it reads. “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 new amendment is titled “Equal Right to Quality Public Education”: “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 reads. “It is the paramount duty of the state to ensure quality public schools that fulfill this fundamental right.”

The existing clause has been broadly interpreted by officials and courts as requiring lawmakers to provide the state’s students with an adequate education. Lawyers and judges in numerous lawsuits have struggled with the definition of adequacy. The language has sometimes been used to bolster arguments by state attorneys that they are obligated to provide only basic support to schools.

One of those backing the proposal is Democratic state Attorney General Keith Ellison, who is currently defending two prominent adequacy lawsuits in Minnesota courts. One asserts that school segregation is inherently inadequate, the other that the state has failed to address the needs of historically underserved students.

Kashkari and Page are an interesting duo. Page first rose to prominence as a defensive tackle for the Minnesota Vikings, attending law school while playing football. One of a group of players dubbed the Purple People Eaters, he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1988.

He used the platform that ceremony gave him, he reminded reporters this week, to decry outcomes for children of color: “One of the things I highlighted was that we were all too willing to let these gaps not just exist, but persist.”

He was the first African American to serve on the state’s Supreme Court, an experience that he said convinced him that education disparities were at the root of many of the issues courts are left to confront. In 1993, he authored a dissenting opinion in Skeen v. State, in which the court held that the adequacy clause did not require equal state spending on schools.

Two years ago, students at a Minneapolis middle school named for former governor Alexander Ramsey — who, in the mid-1800s, was responsible for forcing Dakota and Ojibwe people from their lands — got permission to rename their school Justice Page Middle School.

Page is a proponent of reducing standardized testing. There are multiple ways of measuring educational quality, he said in response to questions about how the state could prove it is satisfying the proposed amendment’s requirement that it ensure that schools meet standards.

Kashkari, appointed president of Minneapolis’s Federal Reserve in 2015, inherited a staff of economists with a long history of conducting education research that has been used, among other things, to justify greater investments of public dollars in early childhood education.

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