Constitutional amendment will make public education a civil right

I have been committed to educational equity for nearly a half-century. When I was honored for my on-field prowess in 1988 and inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, I felt so strongly about educational equity that I selected Willarene Beasley, then the principal at Minneapolis North High School, to introduce me at my enshrinement ceremony.

During the ceremony, I asked myself and the thousands present: “What contribution can I still make that would be truly worthy of the outpouring of respect and good feelings I have felt here today?”

My answer: “To help give children the chance to reach their dreams.”

In conjunction with my enshrinement, my wife Diane and I started the Page Education Foundation with the goal of encouraging, motivating, and assisting students of color in the pursuit of post-secondary education. Over the years the Foundation has awarded more than $15,000,000 in grants to more than 7,500 young Men and Women of Color. My commitment continues.

In October of last year, the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis issued a report examining disparities in achievement for children in Minnesota’s education system. For children of color and children from low-income White families, these disparities are significant, persistent and unconscionable.

For African American children they are devastating.

Research from the report “A Statewide Crisis: Minnesota’s Education Achievement Gaps” found that only 30% of African American students perform at grade level, compared with 65% of White students. And, when it is time to enter college or the workforce, large disparities remain.

Only 25% of African American students are college-ready compared to 69% for their White peers. While Minnesota’s education leaders point to progress in reducing graduation disparities, measures of college readiness show zero progress in closing the gaps in terms of what students are actually learning.

It looks like we’re graduating students who aren’t prepared for success. Graduating students who are not prepared helps no one.

Minneapolis Federal Reserve President Neel Kashkari and I—along with a growing list of supporters—are calling on our community and lawmakers to amend the Minnesota State Constitution to literally put children and their education first by making quality public education a civil right. Making education a civil right will put power in the hands of parents and families.

That power will ensure that all children, including African American children, are afforded a quality public education in quality public schools, holding the state accountable for achieving equitable educational outcomes. For me, this is about justice: economic justice, social justice, and racial justice.

Right now, all that’s guaranteed in our state constitution is an “adequate public education system.” What parent wants their child to have only an “adequate” education? None—we all aspire for excellence for our children. Focusing our constitution on children and educational outcomes will motivate legislators and policymakers to enact innovative policy changes that put children first.

The fact that Minnesota’s current constitutional provision was enacted in 1857, before the Civil War, should not be lost on us. That is to say, our educational system today is rooted in the era of slavery. Our proposal is intended to bring us into the 21st century and ensure that all children in Minnesota have a civil right to a quality public education.

You will hear a lot of misinformation about this amendment. Most of it comes from people with a vested interest in the status quo; they do not want transformational change and they do not want to give power to African American families.

They say it will lead to vouchers for private schools. That is false. This amendment is one hundred percent about strengthening public education and public schools.

They say it will cut funding for public schools. If anything, it does the opposite. It makes public education a paramount duty of the state—meaning the state would have no higher responsibility than supporting quality public schools.

They say it will give courts too much power and only benefit wealthy families. That argument ignores the history of civil rights, such as Brown v. Board Education, a case in which individual poor families changed the course of a nation.

Attorney General Keith Ellison supports this amendment for the same reasons I do. I encourage you to read our answers to these questions and form your own opinion. Don’t let those who benefit from the current system mislead you.

By making quality public education a civil right, we will bend the moral arc of history toward justice. I urge you to join me as we move forward to amend the Minnesota Constitution.

Alan C. Page was a member of the Minnesota Supreme Court from 1993 to 2015. He was a Minnesota Viking from 1967 to 1978.

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