The largest organization representing Minnesota educators announced Wednesday that it opposes a plan to change the state Constitution in an effort to narrow the state's persistent academic achievement gap.
Education Minnesota, the union representing 80,000 members who work in pre-K and K-12 schools and higher-education institutions, announced its opposition as the authors of the proposal launched a public effort to woo support for their "out-of-the-box" idea.
Alan Page, a former Minnesota Supreme Court justice, and Neel Kashkari, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, want to make quality public education a civil right for all children. To do that, they propose amending the Constitution's current language on education, which has remained largely the same since it was written in 1857.
But the teachers union argues that the change would pave the way for taxpayer-funded vouchers for private schools, which they've long opposed.
"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," Education Minnesota President Denise Specht said in a written statement.
The proposal would remove the mandate for a uniform system of public education, creating even wider inequities between wealthy and poor districts, Specht wrote in a series of tweets.
Kashkari, however, said it's "laughable" to argue that the amendment would undercut state funding for public schools. "The new language would make it the paramount duty of the state to ensure quality public schools," he said. "The state would have no higher duty than supporting public education with this amendment."
In some cases, that could mean funneling more money to schools that need it, Kashkari said. "What some kids in north Minneapolis need is going to be different than what kids in Bemidji or Winona need," he said. "For example, Minnesota has open enrollment, but I've talked to many families who say they don't have a way of getting their kids to the schools. So maybe those families need transportation as their solution."
Kashkari also disputed the union's contention that the proposed amendment would open the door to tax-funded vouchers for private schools. The amendment, which is three sentences long, specifically mandates a child's right to a quality public education and the state's duty to ensure quality public schools.
"There's nothing about this that supports private schools or religious schools," Kashkari said. "This is 100 percent about supporting public education. I don't know how to make that clearer than having it three times in the three sentences."
The amendment, he said, would guarantee that all children have a fundamental right to a quality public education. And if leaders fail to provide that, Page and Kashkari said, parents and children would have legal recourse to challenge them.
But that too could pose problems, Education Minnesota said.
"This amendment favors parents who can afford to hire attorneys to advocate for their own children, probably at the expense of families with fewer resources. That is the opposite of education equity," Specht said. "Minnesota schools are failing too many students of color and students in poverty. We shouldn't expect their families to wait on the courts, which will take years."
The union argued that educators already have ideas to bridge the achievement gap, but they need state funding to carry them out. Those ideas include full-service community schools, smaller class sizes and increasing the number of support personnel, including mental health counselors and therapists.
Kashkari disputed the idea that a quality education would be reserved for wealthy families who can sue for it. "If one family brings a case, that can drive change that can help everybody," he said. "That's how civil right changes have been made in our country."
He called the amendment proposal a "bold and transformational" idea that could drive reform and help close an achievement gap that has vexed state leaders for years, despite billions of dollars having been spent on good-faith efforts to narrow it.
House Republicans also entered the amendment debate Wednesday, chastising the teachers union for what they called its "reactionary approach" and opposition. The proposal is worth discussing, Reps. Ron Kresha, R-Little Falls, and Sondra Erickson, R-Princeton, said in a joint statement.
"Rather than simply pouring money into a system that disproportionately favors metro school districts and funding pet pilot projects in St. Paul, we need statewide solutions that improve quality and value a student in Minneola as much as Minneapolis, and see a child born in Sartell given the same opportunities as St. Paul," the two legislators said.
House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley, said he wants to evaluate the proposal further before taking a position. "Raising the constitutional standards for what kids are entitled to in an education is an interesting idea," he said. "I think the real question is: Would that result in more and better funding for kids or would it end up in more expensive lawsuits?"
Sen. Carla Nelson, R-Rochester, a former teacher, said she worries that the result will be more lawsuits rather than a smaller achievement gap. "Our future depends on us getting this right," she said. "We need to do things that work."
She's said she's open to discussing the possibilities. "I applaud anyone who is interested in closing our stubborn achievement gap," she said. "We need all hands on deck."
Staff writer Torey Van Oot contributed to this report. Mary Lynn Smith • 612-673-4788