Start Talking About Education As A Priority

For at least the last quarter century, the inequality of educational outcomes in Minnesota has been a concern. The state has one of the largest achievement gaps in the nation between those of low income and everyone else. Every few years, the concern is raised, everyone agrees and then, because no one really knows what to do that would not involve some sort of upheaval of the established order, everybody goes back in their cubbyholes and the status quo continues.

About 10 days ago, however, another attempt to say, by golly, let’s do something about this state of affairs was introduced by former Minnesota Supreme Court Justice Alan Page and Minneapolis Federal Reserve Bank President Neel Kashkari. This brings more clout to the discussion than in the past.
Page, a former Minnesota Viking, proved you can play professional football and not be brain dead 30 years later. Plus, he is a beloved figure in this state because, unlike some employees of the professional football organization, he never embarrassed Minnesotans for having cheered or voted for him. Kashkari helped administer the TARP bailout in 2008 as an assistant Treasury Secretary in the Bush administration and then was named Minneapolis Fed president by the Obama administration.

The pair have proposed an amendment to the state constitution. They want to change Article XIII, Section 1 to read: “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 is a paramount duty of the state to ensure quality public schools that fulfill this fundamental right.”

While the wording still needs some work (see below), the purpose is to upgrade the importance of education in the state and eliminate the disparity in school finances, resources and educational outcomes.

The proposal got some support that reminds us that politics makes for strange bedfellows. Among those backing the idea were Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison and the executive director of the Minnesota Business Partnership, Charlie Weaver. Also on board are state legislators as varied as Rep. Rena Moran, D-St. Paul, and Rep. Ron Kresha, R-Little Falls. Kresha said we need to have a conversation about the amendment because doing nothing is unacceptable.

However, some amendment opponents have tried to shoot one of the messengers, Kashkari, based on the irrelevant fact that he was a proponent of charter schools when he worked in California.

Also, the state teachers’ union, Education Minnesota, has come out in opposition, claiming that it would open the door to vouchers for parents to send their children to private schools. That puts many DFL legislators in the awkward position of having to choose between the union that supported them and overhauling the educational status quo.

The fact is the word “public” is in the proposed amendment, meaning that every child has a right to a “public” school education, not a private school education. Also, the proposal does not alter the Minnesota Constitution’s Article XIII, Section 2, which reads, “PROHIBITION AS TO AIDING SECTARIAN SCHOOL. In no case shall any public money or property be appropriated or used for the support of schools wherein the distinctive doctrines, creeds or tenets of any particular Christian or other religious sect are promulgated or taught.”

The conversations that need to take place will be painful in some instances – if they occur at all. As the author Yuval Noah Harari wrote in his book “Sapiens,” advanced human societies have replaced family and community with government and markets. A case can be made that the substitution is not working well for humans. We have more suicide, more use of mood-altering drugs and more mental illness. In spite of unprecedented wealth, we have more anxiety, more loneliness and now even a shortening of life spans.

How do we rebuild the ties of family and community that include helping children find meaning to their lives? How do we give them purposefulness so they will want to learn enough to contribute in positive ways to our society? What can be done to encourage tired single parents to read to their preschoolers at night? How can the state ensure that in their critical first years, children develop adequately so all are ready to learn when they start kindergarten? Children are not born in a vacuum and then start school, nor should they be. Families and communities have to be part of the solution. Those are difficult questions to ask, much less answer, but if we don’t address them, nothing will change.

As it reads, the proposed amendment needs to drop the weasel words that invite lawsuits. Those words are “quality” (used twice) and “fully.” Perhaps the authors mean “high quality” but even that is a vague term because what is the definition of “high”? The proposal reads just as well without those words and does make it a constitutional right that every child have access to an education that meets quantifiable state standards.

Kresha said the system isn’t working very well now for all kids, not just low-income children. He said, “Everyone does better when the system is better.”