Minnesota was once heralded, and rightly so, for having some of the country’s best public schools and for offering a public education unrivaled in quality and outcomes.
It’s all still mostly true — for largely just students whose families have money, though, or who aren’t Black, Indigenous, or of color. Only 37% of those “other” students are proficient in math and reading, compared to 65% of students from wealthier families, according to wake-up research released last year by the Minneapolis Federal Reserve. The data further showed that only 30% of Black students were performing at grade level, compared to 65% of white students in Minnesota. And only 25% of Black students were college-ready, compared to 69% of white students.
Five and a half years ago when he moved to Minnesota to take over as president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, Neel Kashkari took note of such troubling numbers, and he wondered why Minnesota’s system of public education was failing so many students. How were other states closing these achievement gaps while also addressing poverty when Minnesota couldn’t?
Kashkari’s forehead wrinkled with deeper concern when he learned that Minnesota’s struggles to effectively educate low-income as well as more affluent students and students of color as well as white students were decades old — and persisted in spite of the efforts of generations of well-meaning politicians, educators, parents, and others to identify and fix Minnesota’s woes.
“Education is literally the most powerful tool we have to address poverty,” Kashkari said in an interview. “But we’re too politically divided (in Minnesota). Both parties care about education, but they don't agree on the solutions. So what do they do? They make little minor tweaks around the margins of the system rather than fundamentally upgrading the system itself.”
Clearly, it’s not getting the job done. So Kashkari and others — including retired Minnesota Supreme Court Associate Justice Alan Page — have come up with what they believe is the all-important first step in significantly overhauling Minnesota’s educational system. So it finally and effectively serves all students and gives every kid the same shot at succeeding in school, graduating, and then prospering in life.
That first step is amending the Minnesota state constitution, which was written in 1857 and which includes the provision that children have a right to an “adequate” public education.
“Adequate is not good enough,” Kashkari said. “Many other states have updated their constitutions, their education provisions, and some states have said, ‘You know what? Adequate is not good enough for our kids. Our kids deserve a quality education.’ So that’s the genesis of this. We said let’s amend the constitution to create a civil right for every Minnesota child to get a quality public education, and then (let’s) make delivering on that right the state’s highest priority. We think this can be a powerful catalyst that breaks through barriers and leads to transformational change.”
While amending or altering the constitution should never be undertaken lightly or without thorough, all-inclusive consideration, the proposed Page Amendment has qualifying promise as an exception. It promises the impetus necessary for educators, parents, and others to finally enact transformational reforms so long needed so that Minnesota can once again be revered. So the state can once again be a leader in education.
“If you’re poor in Minnesota, the current constitution basically says you’re on your own. We’re saying no,” Kashkari said. “If (we have) all of these good folks doing good work, and we’re still not making overall aggregate progress, the system is broken. And we need to fix the system so folks in Duluth (and others) have the wind at their back.”
“Our current system has systemically and systematically failed poor children, Black children, Indigenous children, and other children of color,” Page told the editorial board. “It seems to me — it seems to us — that the only way to change is not by fixing the current system but by fundamentally starting over from the ground up. And that’s what our proposal does. It shifts the focus. … It requires that we educate individual children.”
“This is about justice, educational justice,” Page also said. “The reality is that educational justice is inextricably linked with health justice, economic justice, social justice, (and) racial justice. All children, no matter who they are, no matter where they come from, (and) no matter the color of their skin or economic status or ability should have the opportunity to achieve. And we’re not giving them that opportunity.”
The Page Amendment enjoys bipartisan support.
On the right are elected leaders like Republican Rep. Ron Kresha of Little Falls. He likened quality education to oxygen in a February interview with WCCO Radio. “If you’re getting plenty of it, it’s not a problem,” he said. “We lack political will. This constitutional amendment says the schools fundamentally need to offer quality education.”
And on the left are progressives including DFL Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison. He said at the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis in March 2020 that making “paramount quality public education as a fundamental right for our kids is a value statement, which orients us, I believe, around what we all need to be doing.”
The proposed amendment has its critics, too, of course, most notably the state teachers union, Education Minnesota. However, the proposed amendment’s repeated mention of “public” education should allay concerns that this is an attempt to privatize education or to introduce vouchers. And it’s difficult to see how designating public education as the state’s highest priority could lead to reducing state spending for it.
When the Minnesota Legislature reconvenes this winter, Republicans and DFLers alike, from both the House and the Senate, can find common ground in the amendment’s promise to finally close achievement and opportunity gaps. And they can send the Page Amendment to voters to decide to transform public education so that all students are served — the wealthier and the poorer, the white students and the students of color.
“When the people speak and say this is our highest value, that sends a message to our elected leaders,” Kashkari said.
“Quality public education in Minnesota is a value that all Minnesotans agree on,” said Nevada Littlewolf, campaign manager and executive director of Our Children MN, an advocacy group created to pass the Page Amendment. “We want the voters to be the final decision to say how we reframe and reshape our constitution to reflect that value, to truly reflect it once and for all.”
This other view is the opinion of the editorial board of our sister publication, the Duluth News Tribune.