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Star Tribune op-ed: Journey toward equity must begin at school

Minnesota’s unjust racial disparities are now well-known, and the only way to change this reality is through systemic changes

May 4, 2021


Neel Kashkari President and CEO
Alan Page Minnesota Supreme Court Justice (ret)
Star Tribune op-ed: Journey toward equity must begin at school

This article was first published in the Star Tribune

A little more than a year ago, we proposed amending Minnesota’s constitution to make a quality public education a civil right for all children and to make fulfilling that right the state’s highest priority. Since then, George Floyd was murdered, and the nation learned about Minnesota’s unjust racial disparities across virtually every dimension. We are now well-known as a “great place to live, except if you are Black.”

We can only change this reality by enacting bold, systemic change to achieve true equity, and that starts with education.

We believe a constitutional amendment is necessary to put children first and break through the political gridlock that has prevented the state from eliminating its terrible education disparities, among the worst in the nation. Children of color, Indigenous children, and low-income White children are being left behind in Minnesota by our failing education system. Some states have made significant progress in helping these children succeed. Why haven’t we?

Since we first made our proposal, we’ve held meetings across the state with families, teachers, administrators, students, and elected officials. Their feedback has reinforced that we are on the right track.

The current education clause in the Minnesota constitution was written in 1857, and it essentially says that students have the right to access an adequate education system. That means a system that is on average adequate: great for some, lousy for others. Our education system today is performing exactly as our constitution requires. Surely, we can do better.

All across the state, we’ve found people at first shocked to learn that Minnesota is doing so poorly compared with other states but also strongly agreeing that all Minnesota children deserve a quality education—not just the lucky ones. We are particularly proud that our proposal has received bipartisan support, uniting people who often don’t agree.

In the House, the Page amendment has been introduced with seven Black, Indigenous, and other Democrats of color as authors, along with 12 Republicans, largely from greater Minnesota. We applaud these leaders for their courage to take on the status quo.

In the last 15 years, 122 individual education bills have become law in Minnesota. Yet they have made zero difference in improving outcomes for children who are being left behind. That is because those bills have tended to make minor tweaks around the margins of our education system rather than redesigning the system itself. We need a fundamentally different approach.

What would changing the words of the constitution do? It is the people who decide what is in their constitution. If given the chance to vote on our proposal, we believe the people of Minnesota will overwhelmingly support creating this civil right to a quality public education for all children. That will send a powerful message to the Capitol that enough is enough, that the people are demanding elected leaders work together to put children first and make the transformational changes necessary to help all Minnesota children succeed.

We’re not the first state to consider this. Other states have updated their constitutions to raise their own standards from adequate to quality. Researchers at the Minneapolis Fed have analyzed what changes such amendments produced. The research is clear: Strong constitutional amendments prompted strong legislative action and better outcomes for students, improving both math and reading proficiency for all children—and without increasing litigation.

Some people say that to improve student outcomes you must first end poverty and “fix” families. Other states have poverty and nontraditional families too, yet they are doing much better for their children.

Some say courts will get involved in education. The research shows that’s not true.

We’ve also heard many arguments that are really just excuses to defend the status quo.

What we haven’t heard from anyone is a credible plan to improve outcomes for Minnesota’s children that can break through the gridlock in the Capitol. Any serious plan to close education disparities must generate bipartisan legislative support to be enacted.

After George Floyd’s murder and the terrible COVID-19 crisis, which exacerbated existing economic disparities, we are at a gut check moment as a state. We are really good at talking about equity. But are we actually serious? We hope we are. But if our leaders keep repeating the same behavior and telling themselves we are somehow going to get better outcomes, we will know we are not.