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Harry's Gang: Vote on schools coming

The Minnesota Legislature starts up again next week, and while it’s fun to make fun of lawmakers, they really do an important job in our society, and most of them take their job very seriously.

There are some pretty big issues to debate this year, including the budget surplus (Democrats want to spend it; Republicans want to lower taxes); setting new boundary lines for elections; and dealing with the pandemic. It will be fun to watch.

They will also discuss an amendment to the Minnesota constitution. Called the “Page Amendment” after retired Minnesota Supreme Court Justice Alan Page, it’s intended to increase the state’s commitment to public education. If passed by the Legislature, voters will decide at the next election in November whether to adopt the amendment.

Here’s how the Page Amendment would change our constitution. Currently, the Minnesota constitution states: “It is the duty of the legislature to establish a general and 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.”

If passed, the Page Amendment would change the constitution to read: “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.”

I had to read it twice to figure out what the difference is. It seems to me that the Page Amendment would place a higher burden on the state to increase the quality of public schools, and would make quality education a fundamental right.

Of course, such a change is controversial. Those in favor of the amendment, such as the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce and the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council (including the Fond du Lac Reservation) think it’s a progressive step in the right direction to ensure our children have the best possible opportunities. Opponents, which include Education Minnesota (the dominant teachers union in Minnesota) fear that the amendment would remove the state’s obligation to fund public schools, leading to a voucher system that would further the educational divide between wealthy families and underprivileged families.

As a lawyer, I think we are opening ourselves up to multiple and frequent lawsuits concerning the definition of “fundamental right.” Don’t like what your school board is doing? Sue them.

It turns out all sides have a pretty good point, which is why I expect to see some vigorous debate over the process. I saw a quote from the Education Minnesota president, Denise Specht, on their website. “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,” she said. “Many students are missing those things now. Imagine how much worse it would get if the funding requirement was removed from the state constitution.”

She went on: “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.”

Then I looked at the Our Children MN website, a nonprofit formed to support the constitutional amendment. They quote Justice Page, who seems to be saying that here in the 21st century, we still rely on a legal requirement to educate our children based on a constitution that was drafted in 1857, before the Civil War. “Because we’re talking about a system — a system that has systemically and systematically left far too many children behind — you can’t sort of fix it. You have to start over,” he was quoted. Elsewhere on the site, Justice Page says, “Both the pandemic and the civil unrest following the death of George Floyd have highlighted, in a stark way, these education inequities. If these circumstances don’t cause us to act, what will? Every child should have the opportunity to reach their fullest potential. An education system that denies them that opportunity is one that results in injustice.”

While it’s a big deal to amend our constitution, it does get amended fairly often —120 times since we became a state. And, trust me, the Minnesota constitution is a boring read. But we do need a thorough discussion before we amend it, especially on such an important topic as public education.

Pete Radosevich is the publisher of the Pine Knot News and an attorney in Esko who hosts the cable access talk show Harry’s Gang on CAT-7. His opinions are his own. Contact him at [email protected].