Instances of Discovery

Since August 2007 I have been a monthly columnist for the St. Cloud Times. My theme, taken from the mission statement of the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research, is “the renewal of human community.” The columns are republished here with permission of the St. Cloud Times.

Column #138. First published in the St. Cloud times online Jan. 4, 2019; in print (with many deletions) Jan. 6

Dear Friends,

It’s not only the Vikings who are purple. This year and next, you are too – uniquely.

Minnesota’s is the only state legislature – the only one! – in which the two houses are controlled by different parties. In 48 states, one party holds all the law-making marbles (Nebraska, unicameral, is nonpartisan).

You, along with Congress, have the opportunity to show that two parties can join in the business of actually governing. I’m not holding my breath waiting for this to happen in Washington, D.C.

But in St. Paul? It’s time for another Minnesota Miracle.

I propose two New Year’s resolutions for you.

  1. Make good on the state’s promise

“ 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.” (Minnesota Constitution, Article 13, Section 1.)

Nowhere else in the Constitution is there the phrase “It is the duty of the legislature.”

This duty has two main components. First is the establishment of standards for what constitutes “general, uniform, thorough, efficient.” Second is the “provision” to secure it.

The legislature has set standards of proficiency, and, in line with federal law established in 1974, requires that the schools provide whatever resources are needed to bring students with disabilities (special education) up to that standard, as far as possible.

The mandate is not in question. It is a mark of enlightened civilization that we offer public education to everyone, no matter what their needs.

What is in question is a school district being mandated to do this and then state and federal governments reneging on their responsibility to pay for it.

Districts have been forced to raid their general education budgets to comply with the mandate.In the St. Cloud Area School District, this means that $11 million annually is not available for the education of other students.

True, the federal government has consistently delivered no more than 18 percent of the 40 percent it pledged. So, the state legislature might argue, “They’re not doing their part, either.” But when, as kids, you made this kind of case, your parents told you, “Two wrongs don’t make a right.”

Attorney and retired St. Cloud school board member Jerry Von Korff,at the request of the local NAACP and pro bono, will file a lawsuit in January seeking a preliminary and permanent injunction requiring the state to reimburse the district for the full cost of special education.

This is part of a much larger argument that Von Korff makes in a clear and brilliant article in the 2018 Mitchell Hamline Law Review, titled “Minnesota’s Education System Is Unconstitutional: Will Someone Bring a Compelling Case?” Every one of you and the governor should read it – carefully, with undistracted attention – and take especially to heart this summary statement: “Constitutional issues under the Education Clause arise when the governor and legislature fail to provide adequate funding and adequate managerial powers for the legislatively required educational standards that schools must deliver.”

The biggest part of the shortfall is unfunded special education in Minnesota: in 2016-17, $679 million. That’s $679 million subtracted from districts’ general education budgets. How can you in the chambers of the state capitol rest easy with this debt, this unsatisfied promissory note?

You say you have a $1.5 billion budget surplus? No, you don’t.  At least half – and likely all, for the biennium – of the so-called “surplus” is already obligated to the state’s public schools. Stop talking about tax cuts. Fund special education at least, and, better, education in general, and keep doing so in future budgeting.“Such provisions by taxation or otherwise,” the Constitution says about your duty. There is no “otherwise.”

And do it before the lawsuit moves ahead. This will save money and time, and will allow you to pay attention to what you’re there for – governing.

  1. Quit your all-nighters

Stating that you were up until the wee hours putting the final touches on omnibus bills sounds just like you did when, in high school or college, you got an assignment at the beginning of the semester and kept putting it off until the last minute. You’re grownups now.

Omnibus bills are both the culprit and the symptom of legislative dysfunction. To say that such bills meet the requirement of Article 4, Section 17 of the Minnesota Constitution –“No law shall embrace more than one subject, which shall be expressed in its title” – is ludicrous.

You owe it to the people who elected you – and to your own sense of integrity – to pace yourselves so that individual bills are heard, discussed and voted on before they are cobbled together and finalized into an omnibus at 10 minutes to midnight, before any of you has a chance to actually read it.

I could come up with lots more resolutions for you, but if you were to follow through on these two, you’d give the folks in Washington, D.C., and citizens of all the other states, a lesson in how governing is done.