Two of Minnesota's most influential leaders believe they have a solution to the state's dismal academic achievement gap, one of the worst in the country.

Alan Page, a former Minnesota Supreme Court justice, and Neel Kashkari, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, want to change the state's Constitution with an amendment that would guarantee all children the fundamental right to a quality public education.

Making quality public education a civil right for all children is the catalyst that's needed to break the logjam that's blocked effective reform, Page and Kashkari said Tuesday in a joint interview.

"It's about changing the future for the children of Minnesota, and I guess you can say that's bold," said Page.

Minnesota has spent billions of dollars and made countless "good faith efforts" to solve an achievement gap that has vexed state leaders for years. And still, Minnesota has some of the worst educational disparities, measured by race and socioeconomic status, in the nation, according to a recent report from the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis.

"We've been spending more and more money and getting the same poor results," Page said.

He and Kashkari propose amending the Constitution's education clause, which is substantially the same as when it was written in 1857. Most states have amended their constitutions over time, they said. "Minnesota is one of the laggards," Kashkari said.

The state Supreme Court has interpreted the existing constitutional clause, which calls for a "uniform system of public schools" to mean that students have a fundamental right to an adequate education system, Kashkari and Page said.

"No parent aspires for their child to have an adequate education," they said.

The amendment would serve as both carrot and stick, according to Page and Kashkari. It gives all children the right to a quality education and requires the state to meet standards that can be measured. And if state leaders fail at that, it gives parents and children legal recourse.

"We could use the legal system to truly put children first in the eyes of the law," Page said.

"Everybody says they're in favor of children," Kashkari said. "But it's usually the adults and adult considerations that get in the way. People want to maintain control."

Kashkari and Page have spent the last year accumulating research, drafting and redrafting their proposal and talking to people across the state in search of broad, bipartisan support. "When most people hear about this idea, it's so out-of-the-box they need more time to think about it," Kashkari said.

Gov. Tim Walz, for example, has expressed sympathy but not a firm commitment. The governor "is glad to see the Fed and business community championing educational outcomes for all Minnesota children, and he looks forward to working with them to ensure that every child has access to a world class education, regardless of their race or their ZIP code," a spokesman said in a statement Tuesday.

In outlining the proposal Tuesday, Kashkari and Page released statements from more than a dozen supporters, including politicians, tribal leaders and business executives, suggesting it could win support across the political spectrum.

Charlie Weaver, executive director of the Minnesota Business Partnership, said the amendment would compel the state to enact the reforms needed to prepare the state's children for the global economy.

"The state's business leaders recognize that accelerating efforts to narrow gaps is an economic and moral imperative," Weaver said.

Page and Kashkari argue that similar amendments have driven improvements in other states. Florida's constitutional clause, for example, states that the education of children is a fundamental value of the citizens and a paramount duty of the state.

"Since they passed their transformational amendment in 1998 … they've made some of the strongest gains in closing the achievement gap in the country," Kashkari said.

To amend the state Constitution, Page and Kashkari will need the Legislature's approval to put the question to Minnesota voters. The two hope to get it on the 2020 ballot this fall. It's an ambitious time frame but they there's urgency.

"The idea is not to be having the same conversations 20 years from now," Kashkari said.

Mary Lynn Smith • 612-673-4788