An aspirational pipedream

Why the Page Amendment hurts students.

For years, Minnesota schools have been striving to shrink our state’s stubborn racial learning gap. The frustration that’s resulted may explain recent interest in the proposed Page Amendment, which would alter our state’s constitution to make a “quality” education a “fundamental right.”

The amendment’s language is uplifting and aspirational. Unfortunately, the easy fix it promises is a pipedream.

Amendment proponents claim that changing a few words in our constitution would — as if by magic — solve a problem that has vexed us for decades. But these words are empty. The promise they offer is like guaranteeing every child a “right” to be a top high school athlete or get an A in chemistry class.

Page supporters claim their amendment would “put K-12 education in the hands of parents, where it belongs.” In fact, by creating an unprecedented “positive” right to an undefined “quality” education, it would shift control of education policy and funding from parents, school boards and legislators to Minnesota lawyers and courts.

Courts are inexperienced in education reform. They know how to do one thing: Hand out money.

The amendment would open a Pandora’s box of lawsuits, massively increase spending, and seriously erode democratic control of education — with little or no academic improvement to show for it.

Page Amendment supporters offer the slimmest of evidence to support their call for constitutional change: They claim that amendments in two states, Florida and Louisiana, led to academic improvements by minority and low-income students. But gains in Florida did not flow from, or require, the state’s 1998 constitutional amendment. They were the fruit of a comprehensive K-12 reform plan that Gov. Jeb Bush initiated in 1999. Louisiana’s gains resulted, not from revising the state’s constitution, but from the enhanced school choice that followed Hurricane Katrina

Virtually no state has produced enduring academic gains or significantly narrowed the racial gap by turning education over to the courts.

In New Jersey, for example, in the late 1980s the state Supreme Court ordered lavish funding in low-income districts for reforms ranging from universal pre-K to massive new construction and social services, funded by the largest sales- and income-tax hike in state history. Today some districts spend as much as $34,000 per student. Yet a recent study revealed that academic performance has not significantly improved, and in some cases has fallen. The story is similar in state after state.

Here in Minnesota, the Page amendment would spawn a host of lawsuits. For example, parents who believed their children weren’t “fully prepared to participate in the economy” after high school graduation, as the amendment requires, could sue the state for failing to meet its constitutional obligation.

Other plaintiffs could sue to compel their own vision of “quality” education, ranging from universal public preschool for the very youngest children, to comprehensive sex education, to racial quotas for students and teachers in every classroom. The fate of charter schools, private schools and homeschools under the amendment is unknown.

Improving academic achievement and shrinking the learning gap are goals all Minnesotans share.

How can we do better? Mississippi, of all places, is showing the way. In 2019, it ranked No. 1 in the country for gains in fourth-grade reading and math on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Mississippi spends far less per pupil than Minnesota, and 75 percent of its students — vs. 37 percent of ours — get free or reduced lunch. Yet today, its low-income students are third in the nation on fourth-grade reading, while Minnesota’s are 40th.

Mississippi owes its progress largely to an intense early reading policy of identification, intervention and monitoring. As a last resort, third-grade students who can’t read are retained for a year of enriched, individualized instruction.

Giving the courts control of K-12 policy — as the proposed amendment would do — would work against innovative approaches like Mississippi’s. In fact, imposing rigid, top-down control of this kind would stymie effective reforms.

There is no magic bullet for effective K-12 reform. Meaningful reform requires the leadership of elected officials who have high standards, make tough choices, demand accountability, support robust school choice and push back relentlessly against the special interests that stand in the way.

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A version of this article first appeared in the Faribault Daily News.