A class action lawsuit that seeks to desegregate Twin Cities-area public schools can move forward, the Minnesota Supreme Court said Wednesday.
The parent plaintiffs in Cruz-Guzman v. State of Minnesota argue the state has enabled racial segregation in the seven-county metro by allowing single-race charter schools and letting families enroll outside their assigned schools and school districts.
The resulting segregated schools, they say, are not providing students of color with an adequate education.
A Court of Appeals panel dismissed the Hennepin County case in March 2017, saying that whether students of color are getting an adequate education is a question for the Legislature, not the courts.
With a 4-2 decision Wednesday, the Supreme Court overturned that ruling.
“We will not shy away from our proper role to provide remedies for violations of fundamental rights merely because education is a complex area,” Justice Natalie Hudson wrote.
Barry Anderson and Lorie Gildea dissented. The newest justice, Paul Thissen, did not participate.
Citing the “appalling” performance of Minneapolis and St. Paul schools, Anderson asked why the courts shouldn’t intervene where the Legislature and governor have failed.
“As attractive as that option might seem, ultimately, we lack authority to address what is fundamentally a political question,” he wrote.
Dan Shulman, lead lawyer for the plaintiffs, wants a declaration from the courts that because the metro is so segregated, the state isn’t doing what it can to provide Twin Cities students an adequate education.
If he succeeds, Shulman said, the Legislature and attorneys in the case will collaborate on plans to desegregate metro-area schools, subject to the approval and supervision of the courts.
In his dissent, Anderson wrote that such a process will inappropriately place judges in the role of lawmakers.
“The Judicial Branch will not be a bystander to this construction project; it will have final approval over what is built and how,” he wrote.
“I fear we do not fully appreciate the consequences that will follow, not only for the other branches of government but for the judiciary as well.”
Shulman said he’s already lined up experts with ideas for desegregating metro schools, but he declined to share those ideas before trial.
He and the Minneapolis NAACP brought a similar case in 1995. It ended with a 2000 settlement in which the state agreed to bus low-income students to suburban schools, but school segregation has only worsened since, he said.
The advocacy group Ed Allies called Wednesday’s decision bittersweet.
It bodes well for another education lawsuit the Supreme Court has yet to consider, Forslund v. Minnesota, in which parents are challenging rules that protect veteran teachers. The lower courts had dismissed it for the same reason they did Cruz-Guzman — that it’s the job of lawmakers to set education policy.
However, Ed Allies says Cruz-Guzman’s criticism of open enrollment and charter schools could end up hurting students of color who have taken advantage of their school choice options.
“The plaintiffs’ arguments in this particular case risk taking us in the wrong direction by undermining the choices of families of color, and schools designed to specifically serve their needs,” executive director Daniel Sellers said.
“Any so-called solution that takes away schools that are working for children like mine — far better than any other options they’ve had before — isn’t a solution,” Khulia Pringle, a parent advocate and charter school teacher, said in a statement released through Ed Allies.
Higher Ground Academy, the all-black St. Paul charter school, has intervened in the case in defense of the state. Its students far outperform Minnesota’s average black student in math and reading.
Charter schools, because their students are not assigned to the school but rather opt in, are exempt from state laws that promote racial integration in schools. Shulman says that’s wrong.
The lawsuit also takes aim at school boundaries and enrollment rules in the St. Paul and Minneapolis school districts, although the districts are not named as defendants.
Shulman said he will prove at trial that segregated schools are inherently bad for students’ academic performance and long-term health and happiness.
“Every parent should have a choice to send their children to what they think is the best school. However, that has to be a meaningful choice. Today, it is not. Today, it’s either a segregated public school or a segregated charter school,” he said.
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