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Minnesota Supreme Court: Parents' lawsuit accusing state of racially segregating students can proceed

ST. PAUL—A class-action lawsuit that seeks to desegregate Twin Cities-area public schools can move forward, the Minnesota Supreme Court said Wednesday, July 25.

The parent plaintiffs in Cruz-Guzman v. State of Minnesota argue the state has enabled racial segregation in the seven-county metro area by allowing single-race charter schools and letting families enroll outside their assigned schools and school districts.

The resulting segregated schools, they say, fail to provide an adequate education to students of color.

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.

Justice Barry Anderson and Justice Lorie Gildea dissented.

Despite the "appalling" performance of Minneapolis and St. Paul schools, Anderson said, the courts should not 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 metro schools are 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 would 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 in an interview that 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 in 2000 with a settlement in which the state agreed to bus low-income students to suburban schools, but school segregation has only worsened since, he said.

At issue: Some parents choose segregated charter schools

Daniel Sellers, executive director of the advocacy group Ed Allies, called Wednesday's decision bittersweet. It's important, he said, that the majority of the Minnesota Supreme Court is willing to step in to protect education rights.

That 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, Sellers said, 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.

"When parents of color make a choice ... to send their students to schools that are predominantly students of color, that's very different from when it's mandated from policies outside their control," he said.

The notion that families of color are choosing to violate their own rights "is going to sound preposterous" in court, Sellers said.

Khulia Pringle, a parent advocate who consults for Ed Allies, worries that the case could ultimately hurt culturally affirming charter schools that cater to a certain race or ethnicity.

"I would hope that charter schools aren't punished because students and families are choosing ... a place where they are being accepted. I feel like we would be going backwards," she said.

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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