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Coalition backs change to MN Constitution in attempt to fix education disparities

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Students on the move
Students move through the stairwell in September 2015 John F. Kennedy Senior High School in Bloomington. A coalition of business, community and education leaders is throwing its support behind a proposal to amend the state’s education clause to help fix Minnesota’s long-running education disparities.
Caroline Yang for MPR News 2015

A group of lawmakers, educators, community activists and business leaders is throwing its support behind a move to change the education clause in Minnesota's Constitution.

The coalition, calling itself “Our Children MN,” sees the change as a way to fix Minnesota’s long-running education disparities.

“People who are tired of the disparities, tired of seeing the failures of this system, are coming together to get this thing on the ballot so we can take a vote on it,” said Rashad Turner, a board member of Our Children MN and executive director of Minnesota Parent Union.

The idea to change the state’s education clause was recently proposed by the Minneapolis Fed and former Supreme Court Justice Alan Page.

"When Neel [Kashkari, from the Minneapolis Fed] and [retired Minnesota Supreme Court Justice Alan] Page shared what they were doing with us, collectively we said, ‘We will do whatever we can to help you,’” said Mike McFadden, director of the Our Children MN Coalition.

The group is working to lobby state lawmakers to pass the amendment and put it on the state ballot in November. It’s also launching public relations initiatives like billboards and social media in order to, as McFadden put it, “create awareness of the achievement gap and call upon people to contact their legislator to let him or her know you care deeply about this and this has to be addressed.”

McFadden said he believes the constitutional amendment is a catalyst to change Minnesota’s disparate education system.

“I think it's a phenomenal strategy around policy,” he said. “The amendment itself is not prescriptive to how we solve the problem. Rather, it's setting a goal for a standard that all Minnesotans can agree on."

The proposed change to the Constitution would 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.”

It would replace the current language:

“The stability of a republican form of government depending mainly upon the intelligence of the people, 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.”

Several Minnesota officials, representatives and leaders in education have come out in support of the proposal, including Attorney General Keith Ellison. Gov. Tim Walz hasn’t committed to any specific support of the proposal.

Others, however, have raised concerns about the proposed amendment, including Sen. Carla Nelson, R-Rochester; Education Minnesota, the state’s largest teacher’s union, and the Minnesota Rural Education Association.