Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis president Neel Kashkari and former Minnesota Supreme Court Justice Alan Page are hoping to amend outdated language in the Minnesota Constitution so that every child in Minnesota will have an equal right to a quality education.

The two influential leaders announced their proposed constitutional amendment Wednesday afternoon. The new language would replace Article XIII, Section 1 of the state constitution.

The current language reads: “Uniform System of Public Schools. The stability of a republican form of government depending mainly upon the intelligence of the people, it is the duty of the legislature to establish a general uniform system of public schools. The legislature shall make such provisions by taxation or otherwise as will secure a thorough and efficient system of public schools throughout the state.”

The proposed language by Page and Kashkari reads: “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 the paramount duty of the state to ensure quality public schools that fulfill this fundamental right.”

“It begins with all children, and that is no accident. The current language focuses on the education system,” Page said. “It's our belief that by shifting the focus from the system to children and outcome, it creates a catalysis to break out of a log jam that we seem to have been in for the last 30 or more years to bring about real progress in eliminating achievement gaps.”

Alan Page
Alan Page

Minnesota has the nations's second-widest achievement gap and graduation gap between black and white students. Wisconsin has the largest gap. The Duluth school district is no exception. In 2018, about 63% of black students graduated while 82% of white students graduated. That gap was even bigger in 2017 and 2016 with only about 36% of black students graduating compared to 80% of white students, both years.

Kashkari said closing graduation gaps isn’t enough to gauge success.

“We want to make sure that students are actually learning,” he said. “If you actually look at how students are performing on science scores or math or reading, the gaps aren't getting smaller, so all we are doing is graduating kids who are not ready to succeed in a career or college.”

As president of the Minneapolis Federal Reserve, Kashkari said he advances the mandates Congress set for the Federal Reserve: achieving stable prices and maximum employment. He said he believes a quality education is central to success in the job market.

“In addition to that, personally I just think about my own life,” Kashkari said.

Kashkari’s parents immigrated to the United States from India more than 50 years ago. He said his family was a typical immigrant family and wasn’t wealthy or powerful.

“But my parents insisted that I get a good education and because I did, every door in this county has been opened to me,” Kashkari said. “So I think education can be a great equalizer and great enabler for our society. I think it’s a tragedy that many children don’t have the many opportunities that I have had simply because they are not getting a good education.”

Not everyone is for the amendment. Education Minnesota, the state’s teachers union, released a statement Wednesday saying it was against the proposed amendment to the constitution saying it “would remove the explicit obligation on the state to fund a uniform system of public education for every child.”

“Every Minnesota student deserves to learn in a building with a nurse, a counselor and class sizes small enough for teachers to give individual attention,” Denise Specht, president of Education Minnesota, said in a news release. “Many students are missing those things now. Imagine how much worse it would get if the funding requirement was removed from the state constitution.”

Education Minnesota is also worried that the new language will pave the way for taxpayer-funded vouchers for private schools, which may discriminate against certain students.

“The public schools paid for by the taxpayers should be available to every Minnesota family no matter where they are from, how they pray, whether their children have special needs, or who they love,” Specht said. “Educators will resist this move to bring our state closer to vouchers.”

Specht said in a tweet Wednesday that he believes the change would remove the state’s responsibility to pay for public education. Kashkari disagreed with that statement.

“It’s absurd to think this would gut funding to public education,” Kashkari said. “It’s literally the opposite of that.”

To amend the Minnesota Constitution, Page and Kashkari need the amendment approved by a simple majority of both chambers of the legislature and then it would have to be approved by Minnesota voters. They are hoping to have the amendment on the ballot this fall.

“I've been committed to what I can do to ensure that all children, no matter where they come from, no matter the color of their skin, no matter their economic status, all children have an opportunity to reach their full potential,” Page said. “The situation we find ourselves in today is shameful and unacceptable, but yet it is something that we seem to have accepted and I just think that's intolerable.”