On a Uniform System of Public Schools
Jack M. Geller, Ph.D.
“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.”
The above quote is taken from Article 13, Section 1, of the Minnesota State Constitution, where it addresses the requirement to create a uniform system of public schools. It is the often-used rationale when explaining why our current K-12 system of public education consumes more than 40 percent of the state’s annual budget. You see, the reality is that many of the programs and activities state government engages in are not required. Of course, that does not mean that these activities aren’t useful or in some cases vital. Rather, it is simply a recognition that if the state of Minnesota chose to no longer engage in activities such as economic development, to terminate the MinnesotaCare program or end a variety of low-income housing programs, it would not be in any type of legal bind.
On the other hand, educating all Minnesota children regardless of their income or geographic location is not an option. It is a mandated activity explicitly stated in the Constitution. Accordingly, such mandated activities move to the front of the priority line, especially when it comes to funding. But I have often wondered what it exactly means when we say that the state is required to create a uniform system of public schools. Where exactly should the state responsbility end and the local community or family responsibilities begin? It’s an intriquing question.
Many Minnesotans still remember with pride when we were collectively featured on the cover of Time magazine showcasing Governor Wendell Anderson and the Minnesota Miracle of 1971 under the headline “The Good Life in Minnesota.” However, many have forgotten what this “miracle” actually entailed. We forgot that before this period of time we evidently interpreted the constitutional provision requiring a uniform system of public schools to mean a uniform curriculum and uniform standards, but not uniform funding. As a result, we evidently had a uniform but inequitible system of public education, where the funding of a school district rested primarily on the value of the local property tax base. This, of course, created property-rich school districts and property-poor school districts.
Accordingly, in 1971 many legislators evidently came to the conclusion that such inequities in public education were not, in fact, uniform. The outcome was a nearly 30-percent rise in state taxes and the development of a per-pupil funding formula tied to a tax equalization scheme that lifted a great deal of the school funding burden off property-poor districts. So in today’s public education system we have a variety of equalization formulas that really helped us redefine what it means to have a uniform system of public schools. And that has continued to be true with one exception: the building of public schools. Unlike the operational funding of public schools, the construction of public schools is still a primarily local affair. Local school districts must hold local referenda to approve capital bonding projects for new construction or renovations to the local school. And increasingly voters in rural property-poor school districts or consolidated districts with declining enrollments are saying no to their school boards regarding these new projects.
Now my intent is not to place blame, as there are generally a variety of good reasons why voters choose to vote for or against these local school bonding referenda. But regardless, the consequence is that in several districts around the state we can no longer say that our Minnesota students have a safe and modern environment to learn in, not when the roof is leaking, the equipment is ancient and a significant percentage of students are housed in portable buildings next to the playground.
So here’s my question: “Is it time to once again redefine the meaning of a uniform system of public schools?” In its effort to create a uniform system, does the state have any responsibility to ensure an adequate learning environment of our students? As I noted earlier, it’s an intriguing question, and one that I think will soon rise on the public agenda.