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A roomful of community leaders and education officials seemed receptive Monday to the idea of changing the state's Constitution to guarantee a quality public education for all.

Talk shifted to how to build momentum and get it before voters.

The panelists assembled at the Federal Reserve Bank in Minneapolis emphasized the need to make the coalition that backs it as broad as possible — with potential shock value seen as a plus.

"You want people to say, 'Wow. They're together?' " said Kathleen Harrington, president of the Rochester Area Chamber of Commerce.

The panelists gathered for a "community conversation" inspired by last week's proposal by Alan Page, a retired Minnesota Supreme Court justice, and Neel Kashkari, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, to amend the Constitution to make quality public education a civil right for all children.

Evidence indicated the effort could, indeed, bring together sometimes opposing forces.

Charlie Weaver, executive director of the Minnesota Business Partnership, who took part in one of two panel discussions, said he and state Attorney General Keith Ellison had not agreed on anything in 20 years, "but we are shoulder to shoulder on this."

Ellison, who delivered the keynote address later in the afternoon, spoke of the significance of moving away from the current constitutional language — written in 1857 — that calls for a "uniform system of public schools."

He said he currently is defending the state in a school-segregation case with the argument that the system might not be great, but it is adequate. That, despite vast differences in student outcomes.

"We could win — even though the numbers are so bad," Ellison said. "Because of this situation, I've decided: I'm helping."

Harrington said that the Rochester chamber had yet to take a position on the issue, but added it was necessary to have a "disruptive conversation" about inequities in education.

The remaining eight speakers — split into one group of business leaders and policymakers and the other of educators and community leaders — spoke favorably of the proposal, which Page and Kashkari made clear does not prescribe how the state should go about closing its stubborn achievement gap.

Education Minnesota, the state's largest teachers union, did not have a seat at the table Monday, but its opposition to the plan was acknowledged and addressed.

Last week, Denise Specht, the union's president, argued that removing the mandate for a uniform system of public education could create wider inequities between wealthy and poor districts, and also could open the door to tax-funded vouchers for private schools.

Page, at two separate points in a discussion that spotlighted him and Kashkari, emphasized that the proposed change was about ensuring "quality public schools" for all children, and that it would be the "paramount duty of the state" to do so.

Kashkari, too, said that a suggestion had been made to the two men during earlier meetings to drop "public" from the proposed amendment and that they declined.

Any campaign to back the change would have to be led by a group other than the bank, and Kashkari said Monday that he has heard of some people in the private sector coming together as advocates. But he did not offer details.

Said Page, "Talk to your legislators. That's number one," a reference to the Legislature's role in putting constitutional amendments on the ballot.

Minneapolis Public Schools Superintendent Ed Graff and one of his predecessors, Bernadeia Johnson, were at the gathering. At the end of the 3½-hour event, Johnson was in a corner of the room speaking with Theresa Battle, superintendent of the Burnsville-Eagan-Savage School District.

Battle said she backed a change to the Constitution.

Remember, she said, the objections raised initially about Title IX, the federal civil rights law barring discrimination based on sex in educational programs, and what that law has meant for women.

"We had the will, and we got it done," she said.

Forces need to coalesce now, Battle added, to bring the same urgency to narrowing the achievement gap.

Myron Orfield, director of the Institute on Metropolitan Opportunity at the University of Minnesota, voiced his support to Battle and Johnson.

"I think the momentum behind this is excellent," Orfield said. "I think it should move forward."

Anthony Lonetree • 612-673-4109