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Letter: Quality public education as a civil right

Page writes, "By making a quality public education a civil right, we empower our democratically elected officials to enact policies that ensure schools educate every child. And by empowering elected officials, we also empower children, families, educators, employers, and other stakeholders in our democracy to bring about the necessary change."

Alan Page
Alan Page is co-founder of the Page Education Foundation, which has supported $16 million in scholarships to more than 8,000 students, a retired Minnesota Supreme Court Justice, and a member of the NFL Hall of Fame. He received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2018.
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As we look back on our Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebrations and begin Black History Month, it is incumbent upon all of us to reflect on the role civil rights have played in creating greater equity, justice, and fairness and ask what more we can do.

Having devoted my life to advancing educational opportunity and justice, I can think of no more pressing issue facing our nation than eliminating racial and economic disparities in public education. A quality public education is without question the most powerful tool we have to break the cycle of poverty and create a society in which everyone can fully participate.

Our state has deep and troubling racial disparities. Minnesota’s disparities are evident in health care, housing, and our public education system, which persistently fails to provide children of color, Indigenous children, and low-income white children a quality education.

Despite decades of effort, we have made no progress in eliminating these disparities. As such, our children are denied the benefits a quality education can provide – good jobs, stable housing, and better health outcomes.

Education disparities are a systemic problem that require systemic change. While every state’s constitution provides for a system of free public schools, and a number of states have strengthened their constitutional provisions over the years, none has made a quality public education a civil right.

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But, by making a quality public education a civil right that belongs to each and every child, we can transform our educational systems.

The power of civil rights

The most powerful and positive changes to advance justice in our nation’s history have come by amending the U.S. Constitution to establish or expand civil rights. From the First Amendment guaranteeing freedom of speech, religion, and assembly, to the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery, to the 19th Amendment granting women the right to vote, civil rights have transformed our nation over time.

For example, Brown vs. Board of Education was profound in striking down state-sponsored segregation. In doing so, it sounded the death knell for not just segregation in education, but also in accommodations, travel, recreational facilities, and virtually every other aspect of our lives.

However, Brown did not hold that education is a civil right and subsequently, in 1971, the Supreme Court held that there is no federal civil right to education. Thus, action at the state level is required.

Civil rights are a powerful vehicle for change because they create remedies that benefit not just individuals, but everyone. If one child or one family fights for change, that change benefits all children and all families.

Education as a civil right

In Minnesota, we have proposed amending our state constitution to put children first by giving every child a fundamental right to a quality public education, and a number of other states are pursuing similar measures. Our proposal would make fulfillment of that right a paramount duty of the state and provide for vindication through the courts, if necessary.

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By making a quality public education a civil right, we empower our democratically elected officials to enact policies that ensure schools educate every child. And by empowering elected officials, we also empower children, families, educators, employers, and other stakeholders in our democracy to bring about the necessary change.

By making a quality public education an individual right that belongs to every child, by putting children first, we can build a system that maximizes the unique potential of every student. And by making it a paramount duty of the state to fulfill this right, we ensure that each state has no greater priority than supporting public education.

Ensuring justice and honoring MLK’s legacy

We are in an era of deep divisions in America, but in Minnesota, this issue has united people who don’t often agree. Like the 1964 Civil Rights Act, Minnesota’s education amendment is being led by a remarkable bipartisan coalition. Our opponents are largely those who are well-served by the status quo, at the expense of the children being left behind.

Now is the time to come together, celebrate Black History Month, and honor Dr. King’s legacy by ensuring education justice. Creating a civil right for a quality public education for every child will, as Dr. King suggested, “bend the arc of the moral universe” toward justice in all of its forms: health justice, housing justice, economic justice, social justice, and racial justice.

Alan Page is co-founder of the Page Education Foundation, which has supported $16 million in scholarships to more than 8,000 students, a retired Minnesota Supreme Court Justice, and a member of the NFL Hall of Fame. He received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2018.

This letter does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Forum's editorial board nor Forum ownership.

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