July 19 Celebration of Two Historic Student-Led Victories

 The following column originally appeared during July 2022 in several APG of East Central Minnesota newspapers including the Morrison County Record

A July 19 celebration of two historic student-led victories

People seeking good news who want to honor courageous youngsters should consider coming to Minnesota’s State Capitol on July 19. A ceremony from 2:30 p.m. – 3:30 p.m. on the southwest Capitol lawn will applaud two historic victories for Minnesota high school students – victories led by young people.

Both wins involved a bizarre situation that surfaced during the pandemic: Based in part on a 1939 law, young people enrolled in high school who were laid off from jobs weren’t eligible for unemployment insurance. However, youngsters who had dropped out of school could receive this support.

Walter Cortina of Richfield was one of the thousands of high school students laid off when the pandemic closed businesses where they worked. Cortina discussed this with his teachers at High School for Recording Arts, a charter public school in St Paul. They wisely encouraged him to research whether there were any unemployment funds available. Teachers also gave him credit for his research – a form of what’s called “service-learning” Cortina was joined by Cole Stevens from Bloomington, Lincoln Bacal from Minneapolis, Hayat Muse from Blaine, and others.

Walter Cortina and Cole Stevens (courtesy of Bridgemakers)

Lincoln Bacal (courtesy of Bridgemakers)

In spring 2020, their research found that while state policy prevented state funding, a 2020 federal law appeared to provide federal funds for people who were laid off due to the pandemic, but were not eligible for state unemployment assistance.

With support from Youthprise, a statewide organization promoting youth involvement in decision-making, these students organized hundreds of others who asked the 2020 Legislature to change the law. They also urged the state to give them the federal “Pandemic Unemployment Assistance” since a Department of Employment and Economic Development decision said Minnesota’s law blocked state support.

They contacted Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison, who agreed. In bold, capital letters, Ellison wrote that the federal law “CLEARLY AND UNAMBIGUOUSLY PERMITS ELIGIBLE HIGH SCHOOL STUDENTS TO RECEIVE BENEFITS…”

Nevertheless, for 10 months (April – December 2020), students were unsuccessful with the Legislature and DEED. Finally, with assistance from attorney Gregory R. Merz, students sued. The Minnesota Court of Appeals heard the case on Dec. 1, 2020, and issued its decision the same day: a unanimous verdict for the students! DEED asked for clarification so students went back to court. Nine days later, the judges affirmed their decision.

Youthprise told me last year that DEED said more than $30 million of federal pandemic unemployment assistance funds were distributed to Minnesota high school students. Both last and this year I asked DEED for a final figure. They’ve been unable to provide it. But clearly, millions of dollars went to high school students throughout Minnesota.

With assistance from the Minnesota Chapter of AARP, students convinced the 2021 Legislature to change the state’s policies, effective July 2022, regarding high school students and taxation of Social Security for seniors. Key supporters included Rep. Mohamud Noor (DFL-Minneapolis), Sen. Eric Pratt (R-Prior Lake) Rep. Jim Davnie (DFL-Minneapolis) and Sen. Jason Rarick (R-Pine City). Governor Tim Walz also supported students.

Stevens, who co-founded and is vice president of Bridgemakers says he’s “Definitely excited. But there is a lot more work to do to ensure that young people are fully included and meaningfully engaged in our democracy.” Bridgemakers is holding a free national conference on July 29, convening students who want to help solve other problems. More information here.

Bridgemakers cofounder and president Cortina, concludes: “Youth voices can make a big difference.” Bacal added: “We were able to impact peoples’ lives in this state forever – now and into the future. We want adults to take young people seriously. We have enormous insight and expertise.”

Jim Kielsmeier, a former Army Airborne Ranger who’s spent more than 40 years at local, state and national levels promoting service-learning as Cortina did at HSRA, calls this “A great story of tenacity and collaboration.”

Marcus Pope, executive director of Youthprise, sums up the reason for the July 19 celebration: “This is a huge win for equity, considering that Minnesota’s youth are the most racially and ethnically diverse segment of the state. This was a youth-led movement that demonstrates what young people can accomplish with the necessary support. We believe it’s important to showcase and celebrate that.”

Joe Nathan, Ph.D., formerly a Minnesota public school teacher, administrator and PTA president, directs the Center for School Change. Reactions welcome: joe@centerforschoolchange.org or @joenathan9249 on Twitter.