Minnesota's long and well-documented history of shortchanging students of color is at the heart of a brewing political battle over changing the state Constitution.

Advocates of the proposed Page Amendment — named for former Supreme Court Justice Alan Page, a longtime crusader for equitable public schools — want the Legislature to act this year to put it on the 2022 ballot. Supporters want Minnesota voters to approve amending the state Constitution to say that a quality education for all children is a civil right. The Constitution's current language, which dates to the beginning of statehood, requires an "adequate" and "uniform" system of education.

That means navigating the thorny education funding politics of the same Legislature that advocates believe has never done enough to change a system that has produced decades of lower standardized test scores and graduation rates for nonwhite students.

"It's a bit about power, it's a bit about politics. Poor children, children of color, they don't have power at the Legislature," Page said. "And legislators, I don't exactly know how to say this, but — if it doesn't affect your own children, it's not as dramatic of a problem, and it doesn't get addressed. That's not to say there haven't been good-faith efforts, but it's always been around the edges."

Page struck a plan with Minnesota Federal Reserve Chairman Neel Kashkari, assembling an ideologically diverse coalition of liberal and conservative legislators, Attorney General Keith Ellison and corporate leaders. Running the campaign is Nevada Littlewolf, who was President Joe Biden's Minnesota political director last year; former Republican National Committee spokeswoman Kirsten Kukowski is heading communications strategy.

An equally eclectic alliance has arrayed itself against the amendment, from the powerful state teacher's union to progressive academics to a conservative think tank.

"I don't see the plan here," said Denise Specht, president of Education Minnesota, representing more than 80,000 teachers and influential in DFL politics. "I see magic words on paper, but nobody has been able to clearly articulate to me how this would actually work, how does this make a difference?"

That complicates a Capitol push. Gov. Tim Walz is not on board, though he couldn't block legislators from putting it on the ballot. The education spending plan he released last week puts a major focus on improving racial equity in public schools.

House Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, is skeptical: "I would rather focus our resources on closing the opportunity gap and improving education through the legislative process than on a litigation-based strategy." Senior House Democrats in the People of Color and Indigenous Caucus support it, including St. Paul Reps. Rena Moran and Carlos Mariani.

The amendment's backers first hoped to mount a big push in last year's legislative session, but put plans on hold when COVID-19 struck. Inequities exposed anew by the pandemic and elevated even more after the killing of George Floyd make it more needed than ever, backers say.

Still, they have provided few specifics on what would happen next if the amendment does pass, saying it would be up to state policymakers to enact legislation that meets the mandate of quality education as a civil right.

"We have a broad spectrum of legislative champions and they're all going to have a different point of view, but if we're too prescriptive we're going to end up right back where we've been for the last 30 years," said Mike McFadden, a Twin Cities investment banker and former Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate who is working to pass the amendment.

That's led to predictions of messy consequences — that dictating education policy in the state Constitution would result in more disputes over school funding levels and academic performance measures tumbling into the courts.

"Is this more legal liability on our shoulders?" asked Kirk Schneidawind, executive director of the Minnesota School Boards Association. "Is there an inherent legal aspect to this amendment for our boards to be concerned about?"

Neither the School Boards Association nor the Minnesota School Administrators Association has yet taken a pro or con stance but may still do so, leaders said.

Alene Tchourumoff, a senior vice president at the Federal Reserve, said the institution plans to soon release a study she said would show other states that have amended their constitutions to improve education outcomes have not seen a significant spike in lawsuits.

The Federal Reserve under Kashkari is backing the amendment in its mission to address issues that hinder the full participation of state residents in the workforce, Tchourumoff said.

To critics, Kashkari's participation is cause for concern: As the Republican candidate for governor of California in 2014, he campaigned on vouchers and other free-market reforms as a means of improving public schools.

The Page Amendment's "language does not appear to explicitly mandate the creation of a public school system at all, only that any public schools that do exist meet 'achievement standards,' " University of Minnesota researchers Myron Orfield and Will Stancil wrote in a 2020 memo.

Orfield, a law professor and former DFL legislator, said Kashkari refused his requests to reveal what constitutional law experts were consulted in preparing the amendment's language. A Federal Reserve spokeswoman did not provide names of scholars consulted.

Kukowski, spokeswoman for the amendment's supporters, said Page is the "chief architect" of the amendment and that its supporters "look forward to comprehensive review" with legislators and legal scholars.

Orfield said the amendment as written does not define "quality," and he believes that if passed, judges could use it to strip teacher tenure, dismantle desegregation or make other, currently unforeseen changes to the state's education system.

"New words in a Constitution means that courts will be deciding what those words actually mean," Orfield said.

Opposition comes not just from the left. Katherine Kersten, a senior policy fellow at Minnesota's Center for the American Experiment, wrote in a Star Tribune column last year that the amendment if passed "would likely lead to a loss of democratic control over education, coupled with mind-boggling financial outlays and continued low performance."

Given the scrambled politics, getting the Legislature to sign off this year looks unlikely. "I think moving it this session is going to be challenging," said Sen. Michelle Benson, R-Ham Lake, who said she may cosponsor the amendment even though she's also concerned about potential legal ramifications. Backers would also have next year's session to try to push it to the November '22 ballot.

"I think it's in a delicate place," Benson said of the proposal. "But at least for the first time, we are having a robust, across-the-aisle conversation about fundamental change. The question is, is it going to be focused on the kids or is going to end up focused on the courts? That's the debate we need to have."

Patrick Condon • 612-673-4413