by ALEXANDRA RETTER
Almost unanimously, Winona Area Public Schools (WAPS) Board members said they do not agree with a proposed amendment to Minnesota’s constitution that guarantees “All children have a fundamental right to a quality public education.” They cited concerns about language in the amendment regarding “uniform achievement standards set forth by the state” and whether WAPS would receive adequate state funding to uphold the responsibilities outlined in the amendment.
The proposed amendment, called the Page amendment, would state in part, “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.” Today, the state constitution says that it is the legislature’s duty to develop a public school system “by taxation or otherwise as will secure a thorough and efficient system of public schools throughout the state.”
Advocates for the amendment argue that it would help state leaders, education officials and families discuss how to rectify long-standing achievement gaps between students of color and white students. They also maintain that the amendment would keep the state accountable for the education students receive and allow families to seek legal remedies if students’ education is insufficient.
Several School Board members said they were concerned about the implications the proposed amendment could have in relation to districts needing to meet standardized testing requirements. If the section “as measured against uniform achievement standards” was removed and the state were to provide more funding, School Board Chair Nancy Denzer said she would support the proposed amendment. “Because I think it’s been proven over and over again that the state assessments that give us certain money or certain kinds of recognition or lack of recognition are things that the legislature has no business being involved in,” she said. “Because the assessments that have been done with state testing and MCAs (Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments) and anything else that has happened have been ultimate failures all along.”
School Board member Jim Schul said he would prefer for the state to invest in early childhood education, student support services such as counseling and social work and increasing the number of teachers in Minnesota. “I’m not interested in this proposal until we change how we measure achievement,” he said.
School Board member Karl Sonneman also said he would prefer that the state move away from standardized testing and not include it in the constitution.
Like Schul and Denzer, School Board members Steve Schild and Michael Hanratty said additional state funding would be necessary before they backed the proposed amendment. “While I support what I think the amendment would hope to achieve … until the resources are put there to make clear how these good things are going to happen, I don’t see it as anything other than semantics,” Schild said. The pandemic has particularly thrown into sharp relief how public schools are expected to address societal issues such as hunger that impact equity for students, and how districts require funding to face these problems, Hanratty said. State mandates such as the proposed amendment may not have proper funding behind them to help schools support students, he added. “I feel like we need to tackle that first before we actually change any kind of constitutional amendment,” he said.
There could be legal implications for WAPS, as well, if the state implemented the proposed amendment, Sonneman said. “It would transfer a lot of power over how schools operate from the legislature, MDE (Minnesota Department of Education) and presumably local districts, and transfer them to the courts, I should say,” he said.
School Board member Stephanie Smith also expressed that she did not support the proposed amendment, saying that apart from the words “economy,” “democracy” and “society,” the proposed amendment “read as the same exact statement” as what is currently in the state constitution.
School Board member Tina Lehnertz, who proposed that the board discuss the potential amendment, initially said she had not decided whether to support the amendment. After other School Board members shared their thoughts, Lehnertz did not voice her opinion on the possible constitutional change. “I just want to say I appreciate my colleagues’ viewpoints, and I am assuming that we will just let other people work at it, and we’ll take what comes our way, because we’re not going to give our opinion, right?” she said.
“I think you can give your opinion when they ask it,” Denzer replied regarding those advocating for the proposed amendment contacting School Board members.