As one of the attorneys who argued in front of the Minnesota Supreme Court in Skeen v. State in 1993 and a former Minnesota Supreme Court chief justice, I am deeply aware of our state's large education gaps. I've been following, with interest, the debate on the so-called Page amendment, which would make a "quality public education" a fundamental right for all Minnesota children.
Skeen involved a constitutional challenge to the system for funding public education in Minnesota. Because some school districts, but not all, were able to supplement state education funding with local levies and other revenue, a number of school districts and parents sued, claiming that the funding disparities violated the state Constitution. The court held that so long as all children were provided an "adequate" education, there was no constitutional violation.
The Page amendment addresses the key point raised by Justice Alan Page in his dissent in Skeen: that ensuring a merely adequate education does not best serve the interests of all Minnesota children.
In the two decades since Skeen, student achievement suggests that an "adequate" standard is, in fact, inadequate. We can and we must aim higher.
The Page amendment would guarantee the right of all children in Minnesota to a quality education that prepares them to participate in our economy, our democracy and our society. But a right that exists only in the abstract is difficult to protect. That's why the amendment includes a provision for uniform standards to measure objectively whether the state is meeting its obligation to guarantee this fundamental right.
Skeen v. State, a case in which I represented some of the prevailing parties, established education as a "fundamental right" under the state Constitution. The Page amendment elevates that right, adding the requirement that the education be a quality education, a point with which no one can quarrel.
I have heard some argue that the Page amendment would limit home schooling or local control. It does not. Skeen recognized the need for local control of the education system, rejecting the notion that "uniform" education means identical.
"Construing 'uniform' as meaning 'identical' (or 'nearly identical') would be inconsistent with a plain reading of the Education Clause as well as this court's and other state courts interpretation of similar phrasing," the court wrote. That is completely consistent with the rights of parents to home school their children — and the rights of local school boards to choose the specifics of their education curricula — as there is no requirement in the amendment that every Minnesota child receive exactly the same education.
The Page amendment does not pose a threat to those who choose to home school their children or to local control. In fact, Skeen recognized the need for constant innovation in the design of our education systems. Quoting the U.S. Supreme Court, the court said, "Certainly innovative thinking as to public education, its methods, and its funding is necessary to assure both a high level of quality and greater uniformity of opportunity."
The Page amendment will make quality public education a fundamental right. Ensuring that right will not be at the expense of local control or those who seek a private alternative.
I strongly support the Page amendment that will ensure an equal right for all Minnesota children to a quality public education. The status quo is not good enough. All Minnesotans should support an amendment that puts children — and their education — first.
Eric Magnuson was chief justice of Minnesota, 2008-10.