Transcript: House Symposium on Education on the Page Amendment

NK:     Neel Kashkari

DP:      Dave Pinto

AP:      Justice Alan Page


DP:      Welcome back to the afternoon of our extraordinary symposium here on Bridging the Gap. I’m Dave Pinto, State Representative and Chair of the House Early Childhood Finance and Policy Division and I’ll be in this position for the next couple of presentations. We had a really productive morning. I hope that folks felt like they learned a lot. I know that I certainly did and am happy to be back here now and the next couple of presentations right through the end are going to be really terrific as well. We are honored to have Justice Page here and Neel Kashkari from the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis and so excited to get to hear from them and have a dialogue and a conversation. And I want to make sure to remind folks, of course, that there’s the cards available for asking questions and please feel free to send them on in. I want to make sure to give them maximum time possible and I don’t think that we have any other business to get to, so let’s get them started. And so gentlemen, please proceed as you wish and we’re so happy to have you here.

NK:     Thank you very much. I really appreciate the opportunity to present to all of you and have this discussion. My name is Neel Kashkari. I’m President of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis. I’ll start off and go through some slides fairly quickly and then I’ll turn it over to Justice Page. Let’s just start by level setting. Minnesota has some of the largest education achievement gaps in the nation by race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status. I know you spent this morning discussing them. This is not simply a racial issue; this is not simply a Twin Cities issue. These gaps are statewide. They include low income kids of all colors, relative to their more well-to-do counterparts. Minnesota has done a pretty good job reducing inequality in some inputs into education, such as per pupil spending and class sizes, but the disparities are on the education outcomes, which is where our focus is. So, why are we proposing a constitutional amendment? Our view is that the teachers have not failed, the children have not failed; it is our political system at large that has failed. It’s not any individual legislator, it’s not any individual member, but the political system itself. Our view is that for decades, leaders of both parties have put forward thoughtful solutions, but they don’t agree on what the solutions are. And if they don’t agree on the solutions, we end up with the status quo. If you look around the country, other states are making substantial progress. These problems are not impossible to solve. You do not have to first solve poverty. I would love to solve poverty. I don’t know how to do that. You do not have to first solve poverty or housing or nutrition. Those are all really important. You can actually make progress in education itself with education reform. Again, those other things are important too, but we’re focusing on education system. We believe that creating an individual civil rights through a quality public education for every child in Minnesota can break through the political barriers that have prevented reforms from taking place. Now, let me just give you an example. This is requiring—with all due respect, this would require the legislature to recognize limitations in its own ability and there’s precedent for this. So, after the cold war, the US military knew they needed to downsize the number of air force and army bases. But, the US Congress knew they couldn’t make the decisions because each member had to look out for his or her own district. So, how do you make the decisions? So, they came together and created a bipartisan commission and they delegated the decision to the bipartisan commission to optimize the country as a whole. They literally put country before politics and that is widely viewed to have been a successful endeavor and it showed real leadership from the legislature in doing that.

Now, let me just shift gears here. I want to prove to you that these problems are not impossible to solve. This is an example from Florida. On the chart on the left, you can see the national ranking for average test scores Grade 4 reading. In orange, Florida was 33rd in 2003, Minnesota was 12th. By 2019, Florida was 6th, Minnesota was still 12th. That’s remarkable progress in about 15 years. On the right, this focuses on gaps based on socioeconomic status. So, low income kids versus middle class kids. Florida had the 30th worst gaps, Minnesota the 34th in 2003. By 2019, Florida had made so much progress they’re 6th in the nation and Minnesota has fallen back a place. I promise you Florida has poverty too. Florida has housing issues too. Florida has nutrition issues too, but the education reforms they put in place have made real dramatic improvement for outcomes for kids. We’re not sitting here saying Minnesota should adopt Florida’s model. We’re just saying this is evidence that progress is absolutely possible given the political will.

With Justice Page’s leadership, we looked at education clauses across the 50 states. Every state constitution has an education clause. There is wide variations on what they say. Minnesota’s education clause was written in 1857 when slavery was still legal in the United States and when women did not have the right to vote. Let’s just be blunt, I’m just going to be direct. It was written in 1857 to provide an education of the children of white land owners. That was life in 1857. Who had the power? Landowners. It appears to us that our education system today, through nobody’s intention today—nobody alive today is intending this outcome. Nobody in this room is intending this outcome, but it strikes us that our education today is actually working as it was originally designed in 1857. It is serving the children who it was designed to serve and that’s what we want to change.

This page, just very quickly, looks at a snapshot of language. We looked at all the different 50 state constitutions. Many states talk about a uniform system, a thorough and efficient system as Minnesota does. Some states have gone further and made education an equal right. Some states have gone further and made education the paramount or primary duty of the state. Some states have gone further and focused on high quality education and some have required standards. We think there’s a lot to learn from what other states have done in updating their constitutions for the modern era.

This is a snapshot of the United States of America. In the last 30 years, there have been more than 300 proposals on ballots to amend state constitutions on education. Look at the checked box over in Minnesota. That’s a zero for Minnesota. Many other states have updated their constitutions, but not us. Zero.

So, here’s the language that we’re proposing, an equal right to a quality public education. I’ll come back to this. What would it do? Create a civil right for quality public education. Focus on, from inputs and systems to focus on children and outcomes. Put children first in the eyes of the law. One thing that we worked very hard…Justice Page and I are not proposing the solution. We’re not proposing what the class sizes should be. We’re not proposing how to train teachers. We think that is best left to the legislature and to the teachers and to the families and to the parents to decide what is right for their children. What we’re trying to do is use the law to elevate education to make it a paramount duty of the state and hold the state accountable for outcomes for all children. That’s why we think this amendment has so much power.

I’ll just remind you that civil rights have led to transformation in American society over time, starting with the Bill of Rights. Think about the right to free speech, the freedom of religion, the freedom of the press, 13th Amendment abolishing slavery, 15th Amendment giving men of color the right to vote, 19th Amendment giving women the right to vote, Brown vs. Board of Education, Civil Rights Act. There have been lots of objections to the Bill of Rights and all of these over time, but look at how much positive good they’ve done in our society over time. They lead to transformations. We think we should do that for education now.

What do the critics say? One group says this will open the door to vouchers for private schools. That is patently false. It says public education three times in three sentences and Attorney General Ellison has publicly said there’s no way this leads to vouchers for private schools. Two, some people have said this will lead to cuts for funding for public education. Again, patently false. This will make public schools a paramount duty of the state, meaning the state would have no higher duty than supporting public education. How that can lead to cutting funding, I don’t understand. Third, some have said this can only be used by rich families who can afford lawyers. That’s simply not how civil rights works. Most of the landmark civil rights cases in American history have been low income families, bringing a case that their rights are violated and if one family brings one case, it can lead to transformation for everybody. I don’t need a lawyer, I don’t need to go to court to exercise my right to free speech. It’s embedded in the Constitution; that’s why I have the right. Others have said this will lead to an onslaught of frivolous lawsuits. That’s simply not true. If you look around the country, other states have amended their constitutions, has not led to an onslaught. Some have said this will give judges too much power over education. I would just respectfully remind you that the Constitution established three co-equal branches of government: the legislature, the executive and of course, the judiciary. We think they have a role to play, but the legislature will have the first responsibility in crafting education policy. Finally some people have said this creates a positive right. That is false. The positive right already exists today in the Minnesota Constitution created by the existing language. What we are doing is changing the standard from adequate to quality, but the right already exists. Some people earlier this morning said that this would somehow impinge on families’ ability to homeschool their children. If you have the right to vote, you do not have the obligation to vote. You have the right to free speech, you do not have the obligation to speak. If you have the right to quality public education, you are not obligated to use that right. We just want to make sure that it is available. Critics have offered, to be blunt, no credible plans of their own to close the gaps. Some people have said we just need more money. The research is clear, if you just pour more money into the same school system and don’t make other changes, it does not lead to better outcomes. Others have said, we just need one party to control everything and then we’ll make all the changes we want to make. Minnesotans like divided governments. I have some sympathy for divided government, but I think just wishing for a political miracle does not seem like a credible strategy and I would say, are we going to treat this like a crisis. I believe it’s a crisis, Justice Page believes it’s a crisis. One of the things—then I’m going to stop. From 2006 to 2009, I was at the US Treasury Department in Washington DC. I was working for both President Bush and President Obama during the financial crisis. One of the things I learned in that crisis is you do not break the back of a crisis with incremental policies. You break the back of a crisis with overwhelming force. And I believe that if 34% of rich white children in Minnesota couldn’t read at grade level, this would be a statewide crisis that we would be hearing about every single day. I urge us all to treat this like a crisis because we believe it is a crisis and it demands a crisis response. So, last thing, we’re asking you to give the voters a chance. There’s nothing more democratic in our society than giving the voters a chance to speak their minds and to decide for themselves and by putting this on the ballot, you will give the voters a chance to say whether or not they want all children in Minnesota to have a civil right to quality public education. So, with that, let me turn it over to Justice Page.

DP:      Thank you, Mr. Kashkari. Before we transition to Justice Page, just to remind members of the public especially that there are some cards and pieces of paper and you can write a question and send it on down. I know we won’t get to all questions, but we’ll try to get to as many as we can. Justice Page, please.

AP:      Representative Pinto, thank you for having us here today. I’m trying to think about where to begin. One of the things that I learned as a justice, we handled lawsuits, but each one of them involves real people with real problems. And it’s hard to sometimes put a face on that, but when I look at what’s happening in education, we talk about the system, we talk about children, but we don’t necessarily put children first, which is the primary thing that our proposed amendment would do, would be to put children first. But, we sort of lose sight of the human beings behind this. There are roughly 865,000 school children in Minnesota today. There are roughly 279-280,000 children of color, so right around a third, rounding. If you take that 280,000 and say only 30% of them, 90,000, are going to be prepared, what about that other 180,000? What about those people? And to be even clearer, I spent, I guess it’s four weeks ago now, at a school in North St. Paul, reading to 390-400 children. They had them all in the gym, the entire school, elementary K through 6, I believe it was and 90% of those kids were children of color and I could remember sitting there thinking, 400 kids, 90% of them, which 60% of these kids that I am looking at are going to get left behind? That’s shocking. We don’t have the luxury of continuing to do what we’ve been doing for the last 40 years and getting the same results. We need to do something dramatically different and we think by amending the constitution, that would be something dramatically different that would bring about change. Will it bring about change just because of mere words on the page? No. But, we think it will be a catalyst to refocus and to recommit to children. The one thing that our proposed amendment does is it shifts the focus from the current focus on the system and inputs to that system, to children and outcomes. I think that is critical. Neel mentioned that we have a failure of our political system. That’s part of it. Part of it is that the system that has been designed under the current Article 13 is a system that fails children. Some children do well under it; a lot of children don’t. We think our proposed amendment will create a system that will serve all children. Neel mentioned one of the criticisms is the concern about being able to go to court. A system that provides for an education that doesn’t have some enforcement provision, doesn’t have some way to vindicate the right to that education, is a system that will continue to do what it’s doing today, by creating an enforcement mechanism and trust me, the best solution to litigation is figuring out how to solve the problem, not having the litigation fight for the sake of the fight, but without an enforcement mechanism, nothing will change. It’s unfortunate that we are here today having this conversation, but we are here because of all those children out there across the state who are sitting in classrooms today, who are being left behind. And I would note and then I’ll finish, that as I understand it, roughly 40% of the state’s budget goes to education—40%. For those 280,000 students of color, the two-thirds of them who are being left behind, that money is being wasted. No amount of the cost of litigation can ever match that amount of money. And are we comfortable with essentially pouring money down the drain and getting no results? Are we comfortable with that? Are we comfortable continuing down the same road that we are on today, wasting massive amounts of money? It’s time for us, all of us, to take action to address what some of us call achievement gaps, some of us call opportunity gaps, what I have decided to call systemic adult failure.

DP:      Thank you, Justice Page, thank you Mr. Kashkari. So, white a few questions here. I’m going to try to present them in kind of as efficient a way as possible. So, there’s a number that just ask about the specific and tangible effects that having this would do. I’ll just say a couple that will hopefully make the point. What is this tangibly do to improve the quality of education students receive? What specific changes would the amendment bring about and how long would it take? And there’s one that maybe presents it in a helpful way. Hypothetically, if the amendment was in effect, with our current educational data, would there be grounds for a suit today and how would you predict the outcome? And so, those are a couple of pieces. Hopefully, that kind of pulls it together.

AP:      I’m not real good with hypotheticals.

DP:      Fair enough.

AP:      And the reason I’m not is courts deal with facts and they deal with the facts in front of them, not with what we would like the facts to be, not with what somebody suggests the facts are, but with the facts that are in front of them. And so, it’s hard to say what a court will do hypothetically. But, I do know this, that whatever, assuming that there is a civil right to a quality education, a court will examine the facts in front of it and make a determination one way or the other about whether the particular child or the particular plaintiff’s rights have been vindicated or not vindicated.

NK:     I would add, we’ve talked about, we think if this were passed, that this would be a motivator for the legislature to come together. All of you no doubt, who have been working on education a long time, have your own ideas and we believe that this could be a catalyst to move the legislature forward to come together, put politics aside and enact many of your ideas that you already have been working on for many years. So, that’s our first instance is, this will be to legislation. In other states, there has been sweeping legislation that have made big changes over time and we don’t prejudge what you will choose to do, but only if the legislature fails to act do we see this necessarily going to the courts.

DP:      Thank you. We have some questions about some of the outside factors that influence student achievement and you referenced them somewhat in the presentation. Is there anything that you’d expect the amendment to have in terms of influencing those factors or pressuring the legislature to take action on those issues? Any connection that you would see between the amendment and those issues if at all?

AP:      My sense is that instead of an education system that is focused on the system itself, the focus will shift to meeting children where they are and we have to educate those children in the classroom, not some hypothetical child who fits sort of in the mold of, that thrives in the system that exists today. That children come to school with all sorts of issues. Every child does. I’m sure when I entered kindergarten, I brought my whole set of issues, but somewhere along the way, somebody treated me as an individual and taught me, the person that taught the person that I was. And ideally, from my vantage point, the system would do that, so that the child who…I’ve got a grandson that we used to call a squirmy wormy because he couldn’t sit still. He’s now an 11 year-old who can’t sit still, but yet he’s found a system of education that accommodates his needs. I’ve often said that education works best when—two things. One, children, teachers and parents create that three-legged stool that all work together and two, when we educate one school at a time, one classroom at a time, one child at a time. And I think that our proposed amendment would be a catalyst for that. Indeed, I think if we’re going to solve this problem, with all that every child brings to the table, we are going to have to figure out a way to educate the individual child.

DP:      We have a couple of questions that kind of relate to parental rights. One asked, does the amendment take away parents’ rights? Another one asks if it would inhibit parents’ ability to homeschool their children?

AP:      To both questions, one word, two letters, no. Doesn’t inhibit parental rights, doesn’t interfere with the ability to homeschool. Quite frankly, it hadn’t occurred to me that somebody would suggest that, but looking at the plain language, I don’t see how you’d get it out of there. And we heard some of that this morning and I tried to track it. I sort of tracked it, but I don’t get it.

NK:     And by creating the civil right to the individual child, I mean obviously, that right will be sitting with the parents until the child is grown and so, what this fundamentally does is, this empowers families. We think power needs to be given to families to help craft the education that their children need. So, I think it’s the opposite of what the concerns that have been expressed.

AP:      One of the points made this morning was that, well, you’ll have the child who grows up and feels like they didn’t have their right fulfilled, so that they will come back and sue the school or their parents or somebody. And I’m thinking, how does that work? I mean, I can’t, as I sit here, I can’t envision what the cause of action would be.

DP:      So, we’re getting close of time and I know the conversation will continue. I think I’m going to end with this question and then again, we’ll continue going. It kind of goes back to the first set of questions I asked about. The question is, how will this amendment help us to actually bridge the opportunity gap? Concretely, tangibly, what can we point to, to say this will actually do it, all things considered? And we can certainly engage in these other issues elsewhere in other times.

NK:     Well, the feedback that we’ve heard from some legislators has been some are nervous about this amendment because what happens if the courts step in and do our jobs for us? We think this is a powerful motivator to all of you to not let that happen. If you all come together and take your best ideas and I know you have them and say, OK, we’re going to put politics aside and we’re going to put our best ideas forward that really drive change to help children, it’s going to lead to better outcomes for kids. And if it leads to better outcomes for kids, that’s the change that we’re all looking for. And so, some have said, well we can do this without your amendment and I would respectfully say, why haven’t you? We wouldn’t be here if both parties had been able to come together and say we’re going to take all of our good ideas and really put children first, we would not be here, we would not need the amendment. And so, that’s why I think we’re trying to solve a problem in our political system, not the individual legislators, but the problem in our political system that has led us to effectively the status quo.

DP:      Thank you so much. Justice Page, is there something you want to add on that?

AP:      I couldn’t say it better.

DP:      Good rule of thumb, right?

NK:     Thank you for having us.

DP:      Thank you so much. Thanks both of you, I really appreciate it. Thank you.

[00:29:24 end of recording]