Student needs are too urgent to wait for a constitutional amendment

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The education of Minnesota’s children is too important to be left to chance, and the needs of Students of Color are too obvious and urgent to wait for an amendment to the state constitution that may, or may not, improve Minnesota schools.

The teachers, education support professionals, and college faculty of Education Minnesota applaud former Justice Alan Page and President Neel Kashkari of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis for re-igniting the debate about disparities in public schools, particularly around race.

We agree with their analysis of test scores and graduation rates, although educators know it doesn’t go far enough. The tragedy of the status quo is not measured in scores on bubble tests or the number of students who graduated in four years instead of five. The real loss to our state is measured in lost human potential—leaders who never found their voice, careers that were never started, great ideas that were not shared.

Counterpoint: Constitutional amendment will make public education a civil right

The failures of government in those stories don’t stop with schools. People of color and indigenous Minnesotans receive unfair treatment in health, housing and transportation, too. The legacy of institutional racism is so big it will take everyone to overcome it.

That’s why our union believes the best way forward is through the power of the people to elect representatives who can work simultaneously on all the issues that affect students. If those leaders don’t deliver, Minnesotans can vote them out.

Our elected representatives, especially those in the legislature, have all the tools they need to make progress. In the past few years, state leaders delivered all-day kindergarten to every family that wants it. Minnesota families now have access to high-quality pre-K for 4,000 four-year-olds.

Families in a half-dozen Minnesota cities can send their children to full-service community schools, which provide a mix of academic, medical and other services. School districts would create dozens more, but the legislature stopped funding them in 2016 when the Republican Party took control of the state Senate.

And, right now, legislators are championing education equity bills to add more teachers of color, reduce racial disparities in school discipline, and improve instruction for students who have experienced trauma, to name just a few.

At Education Minnesota, we believe so much in the power of people to create the change they need that we’re organizing all over the state to elect pro-education candidates to the Minnesota House and Senate this fall. If that’s not enough, thousands of educators and parents will be ready to walk out in March 2021 to demand full and equitable funding for public schools.

Denise Specht/MSR News Online Denise Specht

This approach differs from the authors of the amendment. Justice Page and Mr. Kashkari have said their amendment would create an opportunity for lawsuits that would eventually give judges more influence over how schools are run.

They have not shared their theory of when those improvements would happen or how they would affect students, parents and educators. Instead, they’ve pointed to other states with recent education amendments, including Florida.

In 1998, voters in Florida passed the education amendment that inspired the Minnesota proposal. The Florida version was also vague. It took four years for voters there to add specifics with two more education amendments.

The first 2002 Florida amendment capped class sizes in core subjects. The second guaranteed free preschool. Those amendments had clear goals backed by research, unlike the current proposal. And even so, thousands of educators protested at the capitol in January for more funding.

The proposed Minnesota amendment would also delete from the Constitution the current requirement to fund schools and guarantee a “general and uniform” system of public education. That’s important.

In 2018, the Minnesota Supreme Court interpreted the phrase “general and uniform” to prohibit racially isolated schools. The lawsuit, Cruz-Guzman v. Minnesota, is now in mediation with the State. Passing the proposed amendment would end the case.

In 2003, similar language in the Florida Constitution blocked a private school voucher scheme when a Florida court held that vouchers violated a general and uniform system of public schools. Because the Minnesota proposal omits “general and uniform,” it opens the door for vouchers here.

The authors of this amendment are smart, careful people. Justice Page is a legal icon. Mr. Kashkari is a respected banker, former Republican candidate for governor of California, and a former official with the U.S. Treasury under President George W. Bush. The choices that went into creating this proposed amendment were deliberate, but, so far, not transparent.

While we share the aspirations of this proposal, we cannot support it without knowing why the authors would abandon such important constitutional language and, more importantly, how and when the amendment would affect the students we educate.

Instead, we see urgent and obvious needs in our schools that cannot wait. We put our faith in elected leaders, not courts, to solve them.

Denise Specht is president of Education Minnesota, the labor union of more than 86,000 educators in Minnesota.