Calling it a “conversation starter” in a state with persistent achievement gaps, legislators rolled out an amendment Tuesday to swap out 163-year-old language in the Minnesota Constitution that establishes a “uniform system” of public schools with wording that would make a “quality public education” a fundamental right for all children.
School officials and former Minnesota Supreme Court Justice Alan Page were on hand for the introduction of the constitutional amendment in the Legislature, saying it’s a first step in rethinking the state’s education system, which has one of the worst educational achievement gaps between black and white students.
“For those children, it is a disaster. For those families, it is a disaster,” said Rep. Rena Moran, DFL-St. Paul, the author of House legislation that would put the amendment up for a public vote. “It’s time to fundamentally reframe our discussion about education.”
It’s a controversial proposal that’s opposed by the state’s largest teacher’s union, Education Minnesota.
The constitution currently reads that schools must be funded by taxation or “otherwise as will secure a thorough and efficient system of public schools throughout the state.” Without that language, Education Minnesota argues there would be nothing in the Constitution requiring legislators to fully fund schools.
The union also argues that the amendment is an open invitation for lawsuits against the state over the achievement gap.
“Those cases could take as long as a decade to resolve and lead to a drawn-out fight between the judicial and legislative branches over control of education policy and funding,” said Education Minnesota President Denise Specht.
DFL Attorney General Keith Ellison, who supports the amendment, said it would be his job to defend the state against lawsuits.
“I seem to remember something about Brown vs. Board of Education. I think that was litigation,” Ellison said, referring to the landmark 1954 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that ended segregated public schools. “It would not be the first time that Americans have had to sue to make sure that their kids can get a quality education. I don’t fear it, I think it’s a good thing to do.”
The Senate companion bill is sponsored by Sen. Jeff Howe, R-Rockville. Constitutional amendments bypass the governor and require only a simple majority vote in both the House and Senate in order to head to the ballot. The bills’ sponsors said they don’t have the votes to pass the amendment yet.