Members of the state Indian Affairs Council openly voiced their approval of the proposed constitutional amendment at their meeting in downtown St. Paul on Tuesday, Feb. 18. If ratified, they said, the amendment would signify a long-overdue step toward improving education for the state’s Native American youth.
“I believe everyone here is going to support this 100%,” said Lower Sioux Indian Community Tribal Council President Robert Larsen, a member of the Indian Affairs council executive board.
Former state Supreme Court Justice Alan Page and Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis President Neel Kashkari proposed the amendment last month as a way to bridge some of Minnesota’s academic achievement gaps. In pitching the amendment to the council on Tuesday, the two said the state constitution’s current mandate for an “adequate” education essentially allows less affluent school districts to languish.
“An adequate educational system is actually good for some students and terrible for other students,” Kashkari said. “If you look at it, Minnesota’s education system is failing Native children. In vast numbers, it is failing Native children.”
According to one Minneapolis Fed report, indigenous students in Minnesota tend to earn lower standardized test scores, graduate less frequently and are less prepared for college compared to some of their peers. Students of color and students from low-income households are similarly affected.
Red Lake Nation Tribal Council Secretary Sam Strong, also a member of the state Indian Affairs Council executive board, said the public schools on his reservation suffer from an abysmal graduation rate. It has improved in recent years, he said, but only from a rate of less than 10% to around 20% today.
Though supportive of the proposal, Strong cautioned that state-run schools can be difficult for tribal governments to work with.
Page, who founded a scholarship foundation that supports young Minnesotans of color, said the state’s achievements gaps are “at best unconscionable,” and put the success of future generations at risk. To ratify the amendment, he said, could have an effect not unlike that of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. the Board of Education, which struck down racial segregation in public schools as unconstitutional.
While “Brown’s promise hasn’t been fully met,” Page said, “I can tell you that we are in a dramatically different place today than when Brown was decided.”
Page and Kashkari urged members of the council to get behind the proposal, which still has a long road ahead of it. It needs to pass by a simple majority in both chambers of the state Legislature, and would then have to be approved at the ballot box by Minnesota voters.
In the proposal’s corner are officials from a range of state government agencies, nonprofit organizations and trade groups. But it doesn’t lack for critics.
Education Minnesota, for example, the state’s largest teachers union, opposes it on the grounds that it could allow voucher schools and litigious parents to siphon funds from the public school system.
State lawmakers on Monday, Feb. 17, were noncommittal about the proposal’s prospects in the Legislature but acknowledged disparities in Minnesota’s education system.
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