Civil rights attorneys suing the state of Minnesota for failing to educate poor and minority children called Thursday for a metro-wide integration plan and other remedies to address increasingly segregated schools.
But redrawing boundaries — one of the lawsuit’s proposed solutions — is a “nonstarter,” according to one state legislative leader.
Attorneys Daniel Shulman and his son John Shulman, filed the lawsuit in Hennepin County District Court on behalf of seven families and one community group, accusing the state of approving policies that have created schools with disproportionate numbers of poor and minority children. Students in those schools vastly underperform academically compared to children in integrated schools, the complaint states.
Twenty years ago, the Minneapolis NAACP sued the state on similar grounds, prompting a settlement that produced the “choice is yours” program that allows low-income students from Minneapolis to enroll in suburban districts.
“We are going to ensure that the Twin Cities become a national leader in educating children in the Twin Cities, and not as we are today, an absolute failure nationally — with one of the largest so-called learning gaps in the country,” John Shulman said at a news conference Thursday. Shulman and his father also represented the NAACP in the older case.
Myron Orfield, a University of Minnesota law professor, said the “choice is yours” agreement showed that a legal remedy was possible. But, he added: “These are hard things. The more segregated you get, the harder it is to do something about it.”
A recent Star Tribune analysis showed elementary students in Minneapolis and St. Paul attend schools that are more racially segregated than they have been in a generation. More than half the elementary schools in the two districts now have 80 percent or more minority students. In Minneapolis, a district that was fully integrated in the 1980s, two schools have student populations that are almost entirely white and 19 schools are more than 80 percent minority.
The two districts were not named as defendants in the lawsuit because, under law, the state bears the responsibility to provide an adequate education, Shulman said.
Minneapolis, the lawsuit alleges, put in place boundary changes that have further segregated schools, and it accuses the district of not spending integration money appropriately. But Dirk Tedmon, the district’s spokesman, declined to comment Thursday, saying: “The lawsuit is against the state.”
St. Paul is in the third year of a Strong Schools, Strong Communities restructuring that put renewed emphasis on neighborhood schools as the heart of the community. St. Paul’s NAACP chapter since has claimed that the district is becoming more segregated. But the St. Paul district also declined to comment Thursday, noting that it, too, is not a defendant in the case.
Gov. Mark Dayton’s office deferred to state Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius, who said Thursday that she had not seen the complaint, and as such could not speak to its specifics.
State Sen. Chuck Wiger, DFL-Maplewood, chairman of the Senate Education Committee, said the state has worked to close the achievement gap by providing integration aid and increasing its investments in early education. Asked if a settlement were possible along the lines of a “choice is yours” expansion, Wiger said: “We have a system of open enrollment where choice is available.”
As for redoing district boundaries, he said there was “no legislative appetite” for a proposal along those lines.
In Minnesota, Orfield said, desegregation efforts were hampered by a 1998 opinion saying the state, “absent proof of intentional discrimination, did not have a compelling governmental interest in integrating its K-12 schools.”
Alex Cruz, one of the plaintiffs, lives in St. Paul’s Frogtown neighborhood. He said he drives his kids seven minutes each day to a bus stop that feeds to Groveland Park Elementary in the city’s Macalester-Groveland area because he wants his children to study alongside kids whose families are more likely to include college graduates.
“I want my children to have the same opportunities to succeed in life,” said Cruz, adding he hoped the lawsuit would “make it easier, make it better, for all kids.”
In St. Paul and Minneapolis, the lawsuit alleges, the districts have drawn school attendance boundaries that place a large number of minority and poor children in certain schools, while other schools in the districts have large concentrations of mostly white and wealthy children.
The complaint also alleges racial and socioeconomic segregation at charter schools and some suburban schools, too.
According to the complaint, as more families of color have moved to the suburbs, particularly inner-ring suburbs, the state has permitted the drawing of boundaries that “deliberately increased segregation.” Hopkins, Bloomington, Burnsville, Osseo and North St. Paul-Maplewood-Oakdale were among the examples.
The lawsuit alleges some suburban districts, including Minnetonka, draw more affluent white students from nearby districts by advertising when neighboring districts are undergoing boundary adjustments that might increase diversity in schools.
Charter schools also have “promoted and exacerbated segregation,” the lawsuit said, by marketing themselves to parents as providers of a “racially-oriented education, appropriate only to a particular racial group” or by attracting white students in districts with shifting demographics.
Of the metro area’s elementary-level charter schools, 58 percent have predominantly minority students and 19 percent have predominantly white students. Nearly all of the predominantly minority charter schools have high levels of poverty, as well, according to a Star Tribune analysis of data from the Minnesota Department of Education.
In Minneapolis and St. Paul, open enrollment to suburban or charter schools has resulted in the two districts becoming isolated with poor and minority students, the complaint states.
A spokesman for Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges said that she had not seen the lawsuit and would not comment.
St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman had not been briefed on the case, spokeswoman Tonya Tennessen said. But, she added, the mayor is “deeply concerned” about disparities in academic achievement between white students and children of color, and that addressing the disparities “remains a key focus of his administration.”
Staff writer Mary Jo Webster contributed to this report.