'Quality education' constitutional amendment draws unlikely coalition in support
ST. PAUL — A campaign to enshrine in the state's Constitution an amendment guaranteeing Minnesotans the right to a quality public education is forging unlikely alliances as the state Legislature comes back into session.
Former Minnesota Supreme Court Justice Alan Page and Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis President Neel Kashkari last month put forth the proposal aimed at bridging some of the state's academic achievement gaps. As lawmakers returned to the Capitol this week, a trio of advocates from different walks of life announced their campaign to get the amendment to the ballot this year.
Indigenous students, students of color and students from low-income families in Minnesota experience lower standardized test scores, graduation rates and college readiness indicators as compared to their peers, a report from the Minneapolis Fed shows. And the Fed deemed the disparities a statewide crisis.
Mike McFadden, a businessman and former Republican candidate for U.S. Senate, Rashad Turner, a founder of Black Lives Matter St. Paul and executive director of nonprofit Minnesota Parent Union, and Mike Ciresi, an attorney and former DFL candidate for U.S. Senate, said they came together to bolster support for the amendment because they felt the Legislature lagged in addressing the gaps in academic outcomes in Minnesota.
"Once we have that right established, that will act as a catalyst for change," McFadden, one of the leaders of Our Children Minnesota, said. "People can no longer ignore the issue. It will force the Legislature to act to ensure that all children are receiving a quality education."
After decades of seeing lawmakers, education groups, community leaders and others bring forth ideas to bridge the gaps with little or no success, putting the language in the Constitution is vital to ensuring decisive action, Turner said.
"There have been solutions presented, there've been bright ideas before but they’ve always left out families of color or low-income families," Turner said. "Throughout this time, no matter how bright the solution was, the gap continued to grow."
Education Minnesota, the state's largest teachers' union, has opposed the amendment, saying it could pave the way for voucher schools at the expense of the state's public school system. And Education Minnesota President Denise Specht said setting up a path for parents to sue schools or the state over instruction that doesn't rise to the standard set out in the amendment would take years when students need help now.
In the Legislature, leaders and Gov. Tim Walz have said they want to put forth potential legislative fixes this year that could reduce the disparities.
“I’m willing to explore it because what we have been doing has not been working,” Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, said last week. Gazelka noted he’d not been warm to a constitutional amendment.
Walz, a former public school teacher, said he hoped the campaign around the constitutional amendment would bring a meaningful dialogue about the disparities to the Legislature. The first-term governor said he would take responsibility for turning around the student outcomes.
At another forum Tuesday, three of four top legislative leaders said they viewed the disparities as an issue, but didn't immediately say what could be done to resolve them. House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, said he thought the amendment should be placed on the ballot. Attorney General Keith Ellison and at least two members of the legislative People of Color and Indigenous Caucus have said they support the amendment.