Friday, November 20, 2009

Minnesota Constitution Puts Public Education First

The education clause of the Minnesota Constitution states:

“Uniform system of public schools. The stability of a republican form of government depending mainly upon the intelligence of the people, it is the duty of the legislature to establish a general and uniform system of public schools. The legislature shall make such provisions by taxation or otherwise as will secure a thorough and efficient system of public schools throughout the state.”

To maintain a thorough and efficient public system of public schools throughout the state we need three things:
  • Adequate revenues, raised through taxation at the state level, to achieve our objective; without adequate revenues we cannot maintain programs and recruit and retain the very best professionals
  • Cost controls so that our labor costs do not rise faster than the rate of growth of revenues. Without cost controls, the adequate revenues can never maintain a stable thorough and efficient system of public schools
  • A long term strategic plan for continuous improvement implemented in all school districts founded on visionary best practices
Our state leadership, in both parties, have abysmally failed us in the first two respects, and the tragedy is that neither democrats nor republicans even want to acknowledge the nature and scope of the problem. This constitutional provision requiring the legislature to establish a “general and uniform system of public schools” means that education is a fundamental right in Minnesota. Skeen v. State, 505 N.W.2d 299 (Minn. 1993). This Constitutional provision places public education in a unique position in Minnesota. In my view, all of us in the public service must adhere to this constitutional requirement, by putting the requirement to provide a thorough and efficient education first and foremost in our actions.

If I am in the military, I put the nation's defense first before everything. My duty to uphold the constitution in service to the nation requires me to prepare to make the ultimate sacrifice. Soldiers make family sacrifices, financial sacrifices, and risk life and limb, all because they are in the service of the nation's effort, sanctified under the Federal Constitution, to put the nation's safety first. If I am a Congressman, Senator, President, or cabinet member, I have been sworn to defend the Constitution and no excuse justifies failing to provide the necessary resources. National defense is a national obligation which admits of no evasion.

So I think that the education clause places public education in a similar position for all of us in public service, from the Governor, to legislators, to school boards, to teachers, administrators and staff. We are all called upon, by the Minnesota Constitution, to put the provision of a thorough and efficient public education system first and foremost. But frankly, public servants in Minnesota are behaving as if they are somehow exempt from the Constitution. When soldiers ignore their constitutional responsibility, they get court martialed and dishonorably discharged. But when Minnesota's public servants ignore their constitutional responsibility, all we do is give out an alibi.

In the legislature, Republicans and Democrats alike behave as if this constitutional provision simply doesn't apply to them. There is not a democrat in the legislature, not one, who regards the constitutional requirement to provide a uniform system of public schools as superior to their obligation to Education Minnesota and public employees unions. In Minnesota, the democratic party regards labor rights as superior to childrens' rights, and as a democrat its painful for me to admit it. In the legislature, the vast majority, if not all, republicans place the no-new taxes pledge as superior to their constitutional obligation. When they all get sworn in, republicans and democrats, they swear to uphold the Constitution, but its as if they have their fingers crossed. If they were soldiers, and regarded their oath with they same fidelity, when the enemy attacked, they'd all be running away backwards.

Now listen. Teachers are important and deserve to be well paid. Keeping taxes down is important, and fiscal responsibility is an important public goal. But neither union rights nor taxes plays a favored role in the Minnesota Constitution, and when you become a public servant, your constitutional duty comes before everything else, or so it seems to me.

If you think my critique is unfair to republicans and democrats, then put my thesis to the test. Next time you meet a democratic office holder ask them this: do you think that labor has the right to force school districts to make cuts that would impair their ability to deliver a quality education? What you will get is a string of evasions, because for Democrats the painful fact is that labor rights comes before children and before the constitutional responsibility to deliver a thorough and efficient education. In fact its not even a close call. There is no C in DFL.

If you think I am wrong, next time you meet a republican office holder, ask them this: do you think that your no-taxes pledge is a higher duty than your pledge to assure a thorough and efficient education "by taxation or otherwise"? What you will get another string of evasions. But you can't make a no-new-taxes pledge and uphold the legislature's responsibility to provide a thorough and efficient system of education at the same time. When you pledge never to raise taxes, no matter what the circumstances, you are stating explicitly that the tax pledge is superior to your constitutional duty. In fact, its not even a close call. There is no C in GOP.

Ok. I'm being a bit unfair, you say. Don't get me wrong. Democrats and Republicans care about children. They value public education. Its a high priority. They just don't regard it seriously as a constitutional duty that rises above everything else. Its a goal, and objective, not a constitutional duty. Lots of things come first, even though the Constitution plainly requires it to be put first.

What about school boards, teachers, administrators and the rest? We too are sworn to uphold the constitution. To me that means that we cannot cut programs and raise class size, when we know that doing this will lead to destruction of a thorough and efficient public education system. The constitution comes first, even when we are squirming. But more about that later, because we too have plenty of alibis.

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