Minnesota’s failure to integrate Twin Cities metro public schools has denied minority children their constitutional right to an adequate education, civil rights lawyers charged Thursday in a lawsuit filed in Hennepin County District Court.
“The defendants have allowed the stain and pollution of public school segregation by race and socioeconomic status to spread like a cancer throughout the Twin Cities metropolitan area over the last 20 years,” Minneapolis lawyers Dan and John Shulman wrote in the complaint.
They want a judge to force major changes that would integrate schools throughout the seven-county metro area.
The lawsuit names as defendants, among others, the governor, the education commissioner and the state House and Senate.
In 1995, the Shulmans led the Minneapolis NAACP’s desegregation lawsuit against the state, which led to the creation of a school-choice program. The program, known as The Choice is Yours, enabled low-income Minneapolis students to attend suburban schools.
Dan Shulman said Thursday that the settlement in 2000 should have been a first step toward school integration for the state. Instead, he said, “they started walking backwards.”
“We now have segregation that’s actually worse,” Shulman said. “We’re back to do it again, and we’re not going to stop until we have effective desegregation.”
ACHIEVEMENT GAPS CITED
The lawsuit cites wide gaps in graduation rates and test scores among racial groups and significant growth in the number of racially identifiable schools in the metro.
The lawyers counted 114 metro schools where more than 90 percent of students are minorities, up from 11 such schools in 1995. That growth can’t be explained by demographic changes alone, they say.
The lawsuit pins blame on a variety of factors, from state laws and rules on open enrollment and charter schools to local decisions on school and district attendance boundaries.
No school district is named as a defendant, however, because providing all students an adequate education is the state’s responsibility, Shulman said.
“All these things happen with the knowledge and the consent of the state,” he said.
Minnesota spends about $100 million a year on school desegregation, including $16.3 million in St. Paul Public Schools in the 2014-15 school year. And because of legislative reforms in recent years, state education officials are keeping a closer eye on how that money is spent.
Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius said earlier this year that school districts are “not going to get away with some of the stuff they got away with prior.”
Asked to address the lawsuit Thursday, Cassellius said in a statement that she hadn’t read its details but that her department “is committed to helping every student achieve academic success.”
State officials and Shulman have very different views on how to accomplish that.
Instead of pursuing a better demographic balance among schools, state education officials, at the Legislature’s direction, are rewriting the rules of the desegregation program so money is spent on initiatives that can close achievement gaps.
“Moving kids around isn’t going to accomplish what we need to accomplish to help these children,” Rose Hermodson, assistant education commissioner, said in June.
However, Shulman said Thursday that the nation’s achievement gaps were the lowest in the 1970s and ’80s, when U.S. schools were better integrated.
“Desegregation is the only thing that has been proven to work,” he said.
As for how Minnesota ought to desegregate its schools, Shulman offered no specific ideas. But he said people locally and nationally will be volunteering their time to find solutions.
The lawsuit describes several current barriers to integrated schools:
— Many charter schools in St. Paul and Minneapolis cater to a single racial or ethnic group, while suburban charter schools siphon off white students from otherwise integrated public schools. Yet, the state’s desegregation rules do not apply to charters. (The Department of Education is proposing to change that and has a public hearing set for January.)
— State law and school district policies on open enrollment have enabled large numbers of white students to leave St. Paul and Minneapolis public schools for the suburbs.
— The Minneapolis and St. Paul districts have adopted community-schools models, reducing students’ options for attending schools outside their neighborhoods.
The lawsuit’s plaintiffs include seven families whose children are or soon will be students in the Minneapolis or St. Paul school districts. The other plaintiff is Minneapolis nonprofit group One Family, One Community.
Shulman said he wants the lawsuit to be certified as a class action on behalf of all Minneapolis and St. Paul students.
The lead plaintiff is Alex Cruz, the father of three St. Paul students. Two of his children, ages 9 and 10, attend Groveland Park Elementary, a relatively affluent school outside the attendance zone for their Frogtown home.
But Cruz’s 13-year-old daughter goes to Murray Middle School because she couldn’t get into Highland Park, the family’s first choice.
Cruz said he opposes the district’s community-schools approach because he thinks it promotes segregation.
“I want all the children in the Twin Cities to be able to go to a nice school, a desegregated school, and get a better education,” he said.
St. Paul district officials declined to comment on the lawsuit.
The 1995 lawsuit named the Metropolitan Council among its defendants and argued that the regional planning agency’s investment in suburban infrastructure enabled white flight.
The suit also claimed the Met Council’s concentration of affordable housing in St. Paul and Minneapolis promoted school segregation.
A federal appeals court ultimately dismissed those claims.
Shulman said Thursday that it’s not necessarily the case that housing integration must come before school integration.
“In areas where metrowide desegregation has been implemented, housing patterns have changed to become more integrated,” he said.
WHY STATE COURT?
In any case, Shulman said he intends to do battle only in state court this time. That’s because the Minnesota Constitution guarantees a uniform public school system, he said, while the U.S. Constitution does not.
In addition, Shulman said, U.S. Supreme Court decisions since 1974 have chipped away at the legacy of Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark 1954 decision that mandated school integration.
“We’re not in federal court, and that’s a very deliberate decision,” Shulman said. “The federal courts have essentially made Brown an historical artifact.”
Josh Verges can be reached at 651-228-2171. Follow him at twitter.com/ua14.