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Could changing Minnesota’s Constitution help solve the state’s persistent achievement gap in K-12 education?

A pair of respected state leaders and a coalition of other groups think it can. It’s a well-intentioned effort that merits more discussion. The existing language on education could be stronger, but any change should preserve current rights and avoid encouraging more lawsuits and politicization of the courts.

Retired Minnesota Supreme Court Justice Alan Page and Minneapolis Federal Reserve Bank President Neel Kashkari want to change the state’s Constitution to guarantee the right to a quality public education for all. They’ve been working together in search of solutions to the state’s wide disparities in academic achievement between students of color and lower-income students and their white and higher-income peers as outlined in a recent Federal Reserve report.

In short, Page and Kashkari seek to make education an undeniable, fundamental civil right. They believe doing so would force the state and school districts to pursue effective strategies to close Minnesota’s achievement disparities.

Page and Kashkari propose replacing Minnesota’s current constitutional language on education, which was written in 1857 and calls for the state to provide a “general and uniform system of public schools.” It also says the Legislature “shall make such provision by taxation or otherwise as will secure a thorough and efficient system of public schools throughout the state.”

Over the years in education equity cases, the state Supreme Court has interpreted the existing constitutional clause to mean that students have a fundamental right to an adequate education. But that’s not good enough, Page and Kashkari argue.

Their proposed amendment would guarantee that “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.’’

Page and Kashkari, who met with the Star Tribune Editorial Board last week, aren’t proposing specific policy changes, and they leave “quality” to be defined by the people of Minnesota through their elected representatives. The constitutional change, they say, would be both carrot and stick. It would give all kids the right to a quality education as measured by the state. And if that’s not done, it gives families greater legal recourse.

The state’s major teachers union, Education Minnesota, opposes the change, saying it would pave the way for more lawsuits and more voucher programs. (Uniformity clauses have served as barriers against vouchers to private schools in the past). The union also argues that the change would remove the clear obligation of the Legislature to fund public education and hold schools and educators responsible for outcomes beyond their control. Academic success, they say, has always been the result of good schools, supportive families and healthy communities.

Yet at a recent forum to discuss the proposed change, political, community, business and education leaders were receptive to working together to develop a broad base of support. The Legislature would need to approve legislation putting the constitutional change on the ballot in the form of an amendment.

Page acknowledged that he’s fearful the new language could politicize the courts. He and Kashkari said they hoped instead that the new language would break “logjams” that stand in the way of reform needed to close achievement gaps.

Minnesotans should applaud Page and Kashkari for their work, and join in the discussion of how best to create equitable educational opportunity for all kids.