Saturday, May 16, 2020

Kashkari testimony holds key to improving schools, but it's not a constitutional amendment

Source: Kashkari testimony, E-12 Finance and Policy, Minnesota Senate, March 6, 2020

Author's note: This blog post was queued up to publish in March, then the COVID-19 pandemic hit us full force, disrupting the Minnesota Legislature and the rest of the world. I am publishing it today for the record and in the name of academic freedom.

In his testimony before the Minnesota Senate E-12 Finance and Policy Committee on March 6, Minneapolis Federal Reserve Bank President Neel Kashkari asserted that the current education clause in our state constitution was written in 1857 to “educate the children of white land owners... It is working for well-to-do children. It is not working for low-income kids, and not working for children of color. And I don't think that is a coincidence.”

So our constitution was written by wealthy white people, for wealthy white people. There is no denying Minnesota's persistent achievement gap between whites and most (if not all) racial minority groups, but is this because of the Constitution?

Change is possible, however, said Kashkari. He showed a bar chart that shows that since 2003, education reforms in Florida schools have enabled student performance to rocket past schools in Minnesota and in almost every other state in the nation.

Kashkari was quick to clarify, “We're not just saying, do what Florida did.” But aren't you at all curious about what Florida is doing differently than Minnesota? Since Kashkari raised Florida as an example of what's possible, let's take a peek at the reforms that are improving Florida educational outcomes:
  • High expectations through rigorous academic standards
  • Holding schools accountable by linking rewards and consequences to an annual A-F letter grade
  • Flexibility in how school districts can spend money
  • Ending social promotion
  • A comprehensive reading program called Just Read, Florida! to ensure every child reads at or above grade level
  • Expanding school choice options
  • Improving teacher quality
While Florida schools are racing to the top, Minnesota schools are still stuck in neutral at the starting line.

Lowering standards for teachers and students, integrated math, killing phonics, reducing accountability, and basing discipline on racial quotas instead of behavior have somehow not made Minnesota schools the envy of the nation.

Could local control, accountability, truly independent school districts, school choice, and funding that follows the child, instead of ever changing and proliferating state and federal mandates and lawsuits, lower expectations, and restricted parental choice, help shrink the achievement gap in Minnesota?

If the Florida Formula has produced such dramatic results since 2003, and other states are considering it, why isn't Minnesota considering the Florida Formula instead of a constitutional amendment? Kashkari challenged amendment opponents to propose a better idea. Education reforms like those in the Florida Formula would be a great place to start. Minnesota should consider what works, and listen to parents and teachers, instead of turning to the courts to “fix” our schools.

Thursday, March 05, 2020

Education: a right?

Photo by Santi VedrĂ­ on Unsplash

You may have heard about a proposed amendment to the Minnesota constitution that would establish that “all children have a fundamental right to a quality public education.” (HF 3658/SF 3977) The amendment made headlines largely thanks to its prominent proponents, Minnesota Supreme Court Justice Alan Page and Minneapolis Federal Reserve Bank President Neel Kashkari.

I do not believe that this amendment would result in better schools for the citizens of the state of Minnesota. This amendment is unnecessary at best, and at worst, an assault on the self-determination of the people of the state of Minnesota, and on parents' rights to choose the education (public, private, or homeschool) that they see best for their children.

I am troubled by the language that this bill would delete from our constitution:
Section 1. 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.
Why would this amendment strike the protection of our republican form of government, the intelligence of the people, from our constitution?

The amendment would install uniform achievement standards “set forth by the state” instead of established by the people (through their representatives in the legislature). In the recent past, we have seen how bureaucrats used administrative rule to enact academic standards like the Profile of Learning without consent of the people through regular order in the legislature (public hearings, debate, vote).

The amendment is widely opposed by members of the homeschool community, who fear a government school monopoly or worse, imposition of United Nations mandates on the sovereignty of our state and country. Katherine Kersten of the Center of the American Experiment says in her excellent critique, “the amendment mandates an outcome we don’t know how to achieve and doesn’t specify how we are to accomplish it.”

Ironically, the amendment is also opposed by Education Minnesota, which seems to see something quite different: private school vouchers.
Education Minnesota, the teachers union, opposes the amendment stating, “the strategy paves the way for taxpayer-funded vouchers for private schools, which may discriminate against certain students.” —, “Proposed constitutional amendment aims to eliminate Minnesota achievement gap, gains prominent supporters,” January 8, 2020
So who is supporting the amendment, besides Page and Kashkari?

The Senate bill SF 3977 has two co-authors, Jeff Howe and Eric Pratt, both Republicans.  The House bill HF 3658 has thirty-three co-authors. As reported in February by the Pioneer Press on, several prominent Republicans, including House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt and Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka are at least not opposed to the idea. Attorney General Keith Ellison and at least two members of the legislative People of Color and Indigenous Caucus also support the amendment.

The amendment has the strangest bedfellows I have ever seen. If the amendment passes the Minnesota House and Senate by a simple majority, it will appear on the November ballot. If the amendment is approved by at least 51% of those voting (a blank vote counts as no), it becomes the law of the land. Since 2006, Minnesota voters adopted three constitutional amendments and rejected two.

Saturday, December 15, 2018

Jury duty: summation

The words I would use to describe jury duty are interesting, intense, and gratifying.

The court system, of which jury service is a part, is interesting. Everyone is entitled to equal protection under the law: the right to have the same access to and to be treated equally by the law and courts. It was interesting to experience and gain a juror's perspective of how the court works in Hennepin County. We found that everyone from the security screeners to the jury office to the officers of the court to the deputy sheriff bailiffs to the people running the cafeteria conducted themselves with professionalism and courtesy.

Criminal trials are intellectually and emotionally intense. If a case goes to trial, the defendant has pleaded innocent, and is presumed innocent until the state proves guilt beyond a reasonable doubt — to the jury, not to the judge or prosecutor. In spite of all of the law degrees and titles in the room, the outcome hinges on the decision based on the experience and judgment of twelve everyday residents of Hennepin County. Every day when we entered the courtroom, the jury was seated last. The jury has the final word. With that power comes the ability to change the lives of those involved in the case: defendants, victims, and their friends, family, and acquaintances. At times we were overwhelmed by the gravity and tragedy of the case.

It was gratifying for us as a jury to play a role in the justice system. Jury duty required us to interrupt our regular lives, but we gained a real appreciation for how important a responsibility it is to keep the courts running for the people. It was a privilege to meet and do important work with a group of honest, hard-working, kind, generous, intelligent, decent women and men — on the jury, but also the judge, clerk, court reporter, and the attorneys on both sides. Even though now we are free to discuss the case with anyone, there are still only twelve people in the world who experienced the case as we did, from jury selection through the verdict. This experience renewed my faith in the admittedly flawed but fundamentally good people of our state and country, and taught me that keeping our society free and just is up to all of us.

Friday, December 14, 2018

Jury duty: the verdict

After less than an hour, the judge, clerk, court reporter, defendants, and the attorneys returned to the courtroom, and the bailiff opened the door to the jury room. We assembled in the anteroom, and the bailiff let us into the courtroom. We filed into our assigned seats in the jury box for the last time, but now empty handed, without our pens and stacks of legal notepads.

The scene was at once familiar and foreign. The officers of the court, defendants, the judge's bench and witness stand, tables and chairs, jury box, gallery, seal of the Great State of Minnesota and the clock on the wall, and the American flag were all arranged as they were during trial and seared into our memories. For the first time, the defense and prosecution tables were bare of notepads and three-ring binders of evidence. Same courtroom, but this was a very different day.

The judge read each charge and asked us to confirm verbally in unison the verdict indicated on the verdict forms that our foreperson signed just minutes before. The defense accepted the option of having the jurors polled individually to confirm the unanimous verdicts. So the charges were read again and this time we were asked, one by one, whether we agreed with the verdicts as read. In those long minutes, we felt the full terrible weight and responsibility of our decision. We were unanimous in our verdicts and felt that justice was served, but that did not make it easy to face the accused.

The judge thanked us for our service, and the bailiff led us back into the jury room.

Some jurors later remarked about the reactions of the defendants and attorneys, but I found it too difficult to look in their direction during the reading of the verdicts. One juror remarked that she could feel her heart pounding so hard that she was afraid she was going to have a heart attack.

Eleven days after jury selection began, our jury service was over.

Thursday, December 13, 2018

Jury duty: deliberation

Day 1 of deliberation was a flood of repressed questions and thoughts. We were finally able to discuss and opine (as the attorneys would say!) about what was on our minds (and in some cases, in our dreams) for the past couple of weeks.

After the two alternates were dismissed, a bailiff, who was a uniformed Hennepin County deputy sheriff, was assigned to us to prevent inappropriate contact with the outside world, and to ensure that all twelve of us deliberated, ate lunch, and generally spent the whole day within sight of each other. The deliberation room is equipped with a tiny private bathroom, and we were provided with some snacks, so the room, barely larger than its conference table, was to be our world for the duration.

During the trial, we were permitted to have our cell phones with us in the courtroom, but they had to be powered off. During deliberations, the bailiff took custody of our cell phones and laptop computers and sat with them in the small jury anteroom.

The jury foreperson's primary responsibility was to check the verdict boxes on the verdict forms, and sign the form (with the date and time) on behalf of the jury.

All of us on the jury very much wanted to deliver a true and just verdict. We took our responsibility and the possible consequences to all involved very seriously, some to the point of losing sleep, most thinking about the trial even during recess. We represented a cross-section of livelihoods and ages, but these intense subjects and proceedings were foreign to us outside John Grisham or Law & Order. It was an entirely different experience to be part of the legal process for real than watching it on TV.

Day 2

On day 2 of deliberation, we reviewed the testimony of key witnesses and recorded salient points on large flip chart sheets attached to the walls of the deliberation room. I think that differences of opinion were expressed respectfully, and thought processes evolved in good faith.

After lunch, we voted on each charge for each defendant, our foreperson signed the verdict forms, and we informed the bailiff that we reached our verdicts. The judge, clerk, court reporter, attorneys, and defendants were called back to the courtroom.

Thursday, December 06, 2018

Jury duty: the trial

If you are a fan of courtroom dramas on TV or in the movies, you are probably familiar with the basic format of a trial: opening statements from the prosecution and defense, presentation of the prosecution case with witnesses and evidence (including defense cross-examination and prosecution redirect of the witnesses), presentation of the defense case with witnesses and evidence (including prosecution cross-examination and defense redirects), closing arguments, jury instructions from the judge, deliberation, and delivery of the verdict(s).

Defendants are presumed innocent under the law until proven guilty by the prosecution (in this case, the State of Minnesota). Defendants are not required to prove innocence, only introduce reasonable doubt in the prosecution's case. Our verdicts, guilty or not guilty, were required to be unanimous.

The rules of the court

After the fourteen of us were selected as the jury and the trial began, we always entered and exited the courtroom through a side door that led to a jury deliberation room. For the duration of the trial, this was our home base in the mornings, on breaks, and during deliberation.

We the jury were not allowed to directly speak to any officer of the court (judge and attorneys) except through the judge's clerk, a recent law school graduate. If we had a question, we would ask the clerk, who would relay the question and answer. We were not to have contact with the defendants or witnesses at all.

Although the proceedings were recorded by a court reporter and audio recorder, the jury would not have access to either record. We took copious handwritten notes and were to told to rely on them, our memory, and our own experience and common sense during deliberations.

Our life during the trial

Until the trial began and we took our assigned seats every day in the jury box, we the jury were strangers to each other. Over the course of the trial, we had lunch together in small groups, took sudden breaks for scheduling and legal maneuvering to play out (sometimes for half a day). We could talk about anything except the case. We discovered common interests and personalities, gradually learned each other's first names (we were always Mister or Miss whomever in the courtroom). Some jurors pretty much kept to themselves, until the alternates were excused and deliberations began.

Without knowing for sure, I guess that the ages of our fellow jurors fell into every decade between 20s and 60s. With a couple of exceptions, the women on the jury seemed to quickly find interesting things to talk about in the mornings and during the breaks: shopping, vacations, happy hour bars, restaurants, food, children, mobile phone games. The five men generally did more listening than talking, not even broaching reliable “guy” topics like sports with each other.

Testimony and evidence

Witnesses were admonished to answer verbally with words, for accuracy and since the court reporter would not be able to transcribe head nods or non-verbal responses like “uh-huh.” We would often hear an attorney ask a witness to clarify a non-verbal response with, “Is that a ‘yes?’”

When the attorneys approached the judge to confer, a white noise generator would prevent any chance of the jury (or court reporter or audio recorder) overhearing the conversation.

Some audio and video evidence was introduced, but we would not receive the printed transcripts during deliberation. Replay of recording excerpts would only be permitted by asking the judge.

Witness testimony was intense. We took as many notes as we could, not knowing what small fact or observation would be critical in forming a verdict. We heard from alleged victims, family acquaintances, expert witnesses, law enforcement, Child Protection Services, family members, and finally the defendants.

During morning, lunch, and afternoon breaks, I often fled to the skyways, jury assembly room, or just climbed the stairways up and down for a complete change of scenery and to recover mentally and emotionally until we were called back into court. Checking email and doing some work remotely was possible, but on some days the length of the breaks was unpredictable.

After the prosecution and defense presented their closing arguments, the judge provided us written copies of the charges and the law, gave us instructions, and dismissed us to the deliberation room with our stacks of legal notepads.

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Jury duty: jury selection

The jury
Not us, but this is what the jury box looks like. Photo: Hennepin County
After my name was called in the jury assembly room, I joined a group of thirty prospective jurors in a group called a “jury panel.” The criminal case to which we were assigned required a jury of twelve plus two alternates. There were two defendants, each charged with three felony crimes.

The jury therefore would be asked to return three verdicts for each of the two defendants. Because the defendants were charged separately, they each had their own defense attorney, despite the fact that they were husband and wife.

To reduce the panel to the final jury size, we underwent jury selection, known legally as voir dire. The court administers a jury questionnaire. The judge and attorneys for the prosecution and defense are then allowed to ask each juror follow-up questions based on the responses to the questionnaire. The judge and attorneys try to ask probing questions to expose possible bias.

To understand how surprisingly intense this process was for the members of the jury, most of whom including I were first-timers, consider the rules we were required to follow until the end of the trial, to ensure a fair trail for both sides:
  • We were placed under oath to do our due diligence and render a true verdict only according to the law and the evidence presented during trial.
  • We were admonished by the judge to refrain from discussing the case with anyone, including family members, friends, and even our fellow members of the jury (until deliberation), and from consuming any media reports of the case.
  • We were prohibited from publishing anything about the case in email, social media, or any online or written medium.
  • We were required to power off our cell phones, and were prohibited from eating or reading newspapers, magazines, or anything except court documents while in the courtroom.
In short, we were subjected to a very rare (these days) experience of having to listen to the interviews for each of the thirty members of the jury panel, and later trial testimony, for up to 90 minutes at a time, without any distractions. When was the last time you had a meal, rode the bus, or went almost anywhere without seeing just about everyone using their cell phones, or not being able to check your own?

Jury selection took about a day-and-a-half as I recall, after which time sixteen members of the jury panel were dismissed back to the jury assembly room, to await assignment to a different trial. Immediately after that, the trial began.

Thursday, November 22, 2018

Jury duty: summons

In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defense.
— Sixth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America
Trial by jury is a Constitutional protection that most citizens take for granted as a theoretical factoid from ninth grade civics class. The day I received a summons to jury duty by the Hennepin County District Court was the day that I started getting up close and personal with the Sixth Amendment.

Jury duty is an important civic responsibility. Hundreds of prospective jurors are needed weekly to be on call to fill juries for civil and criminal trials in Hennepin County.

My employer pays my regular salary for time off for jury duty, and our kids are adults who are living on their own. I had no reason to seek an exemption from the two week stint, other than inconvenience, so I responded as instructed by the summons.

During the first week of my service, I chose to call a recorded telephone line to hear whether my group would be called to appear in person to the Hennepin County Government Center in downtown Minneapolis. During that first week, my number never came up. So far, so good!

Sunday evening of the second week, my number came up to report in person to the court at 8:15 a.m. on Monday.


I took mass transit into downtown  Minneapolis, made my way through the Government Center airport-style security checkpoint, and up to the top floor to the Jury Assembly room, which I affectionately ended up calling “purgatory.” The assembly “room” is a suite with a waiting area that seats over 100, a business center with laptop carrels, and a small break room with vending machines, microwave ovens, refrigerator, and sink.

The county has a refined process for efficiently moving dozens of first-time juror candidates through orientation into “purgatory.” The experience is like waiting to renew your driver's license, except you can't go home until dismissed. The one thing people want more than food, water, or restrooms — free WiFi — is provided. Our orientation trainer warned us that we would have so much time to use our phones and laptop computers that we would eventually not want to even see them! The county also provides magazines, board games, TVs tuned to the news, the Weather Channel, and Friends, and a spectacular view of US Bank Stadium,  East Town, and the downtown Saint Paul skyline on the horizon.

Every so often, the TV screens would display an attention message and staff would read the names of individuals to report to a courtroom for jury selection. My name was called shortly after lunch break.

Thursday, February 02, 2017

One nation, under God

The people in this room come from many, many backgrounds. You represent so many religions and so many views. But we are all united by our faith in our creator and our firm knowledge that we are all equal in His eyes. We are not just flesh and bone and blood, we are human beings with souls. Our republic was formed on the basis that freedom is not a gift from government, but that freedom is a gift from God.

It was the great Thomas Jefferson who said, "The God who gave us life, gave us liberty." Jefferson asked, "Can the liberties of a nation be secure when we have removed a conviction that these liberties are the gift of God?" Among those freedoms is the right to worship according to our own beliefs.

We have seen peace-loving Muslims brutalized, victimized, murdered and oppressed by ISIS killers. We have seen threats of extermination against the Jewish people. We have seen a campaign of ISIS and genocide against Christians, where they cut off heads. Not since the Middle Ages have we seen that.

So I want to express clearly today, to the American people, that my administration will do everything in its power to defend and protect religious liberty in our land. America must forever remain a tolerant society where all faiths are respected and where all of our citizens can feel safe and secure.

So in the coming days, we will develop a system to help ensure that those admitted into our country fully embrace our values of religious and personal liberty. And that they reject any form of oppression and discrimination. We want people to come into our nation, but we want people to love us and to love our values, not to hate us and to hate our values.

We will be a safe country, we will be a free country and we will be a country where all citizens can practice their beliefs without fear of hostility or a fear of violence. America will flourish, as long as our liberty, and in particular, our religious liberty is allowed to flourish.

America will succeed, as long as our most vulnerable citizens -- and we have some that are so vulnerable -- have a path to success. And America will thrive, as long as we continue to have faith in each other and faith in God.

That faith in God has inspired men and women to sacrifice for the needy, to deploy to wars overseas and to lock arms at home, to ensure equal rights for every man, woman and child in our land. It's that faith that sent the pilgrims across the oceans, the pioneers across the plains and the young people all across America, to chase their dreams. They are chasing their dreams. We are going to bring those dreams back.

As long as we have God, we are never, ever alone. Whether it's the soldier on the night watch, or the single parent on the night shift, God will always give us solace and strength, and comfort. We need to carry on and to keep carrying on.

For us here in Washington, we must never, ever stop asking God for the wisdom to serve the public, according to His will.

That's why President Eisenhower and Senator Carlson had the wisdom to gather together 64 years ago, to begin this truly great tradition. But that's not all they did together. Let me tell you the rest of the story. Just one year later, Senator Carlson was among the members of Congress to send to the president's desk a joint resolution that added, "Under God," to our Pledge of Allegiance. It's a great thing.

Because that's what we are, and that is what we will always be, and that is what our people want: one beautiful nation, under God.

Thank you, God bless you and God bless America.

—excerpts from remarks by President Donald Trump at the National Prayer Breakfast, February 2, 2017

Friday, February 19, 2016

After Carly

The Republican Party and this country lost an opportunity to elect the leader that this country needs when Carly Fiorina suspended her campaign for President of the United States. The tipping point was when Fiorina was barred from appearing on the presidential debate stage prior to the New Hampshire primary election and her campaign's loss of momentum from the Iowa caucuses.

Being a part of Team Carly was fun and over way too soon. The CARLY for America Minnesota leadership team was principled and un-cynical without being idealistic or naive. Many of us carry vivid memories of many political campaigns won and lost, from school board to President of the United States. We mourn the loss of the American dream yet believe that it can still be regained. The CARLY for America website thanked the candidate exactly how we would have phrased it:
Thank you for fighting to make ours a citizen government, to restore the character of our country and to bring accountability to our government.  You inspired us to believe in the unlimited potential in each and every one of us and you stood strong while others tried to define you, disparage you and dismiss you.
Fiorina's supporters are a loyal bunch. Some of us are still in shock. We were looking ahead to Super Tuesday and beyond. For those candidates looking to appeal to #CaucusForCarly delegates, here are some ideas:

Look for common ground. Fiorina had the potential to reach out to Democrats and independents by being a problem-solver, not an ideologue. While unapologetically pro-life, Fiorina was committed to finding common ground and enacting common-sense abortion reforms.

During primary season, put your Republican rivals in their place without putting them down. When asked to respond to Donald Trump's insult about her "face," Fiorina said, "I think women all over this country heard very clearly what Mr. Trump said." She left it at that. Brilliant. We are sick and tired of the mud slinging between Republicans. President Ronald "Eleventh Commandment" Reagan is surely weeping in heaven.

Demonstrate your readiness to lead. Fiorina said that her first two telephone calls as president would be to Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu to reassure him that we stand with the state of Israel. She said that the second one would be to the Supreme Leader of Iran to tell him "new president, new deal." Fiorina acknowledged that Khamenei would not take her call, "but he would get the message."

Inspire the voters and our nation with a grand vision for America. Fiorina's "Lady Liberty, Lady Justice" debate-closing statement was positively Reaganesque.

As Fiorina summed up her vision on Facebook and on her campaign website:
We must fix our festering problems by holding our bloated, inept government bureaucracy accountable. Republicans must stand for conservative principles that lift people up and recognize all Americans have the right to fulfill their God-given potential.
It remains to be seen which of the remaining Republican candidates for President can best carry this torch and win the election.