A lawsuit alleging that Minnesota has failed students by enabling segregation in schools will move forward in the courts, following a decision by the Minnesota Supreme Court on Wednesday.
The 4-2 ruling from the state’s high court settles the question that had paused the legal battle over school segregation: whether it was the role of the courts or the Legislature to determine what defines an adequate education. Writing for the majority, Justice Natalie Hudson concluded that the Minnesota Constitution requires the Legislature to provide students with an acceptable education — but that the courts are the right place for someone to question if the Legislature is following through on that responsibility.
“We will not shy away from our proper role to provide remedies for violations of fundamental rights merely because education is a complex area,” Hudson wrote. “The judiciary is well equipped to assess whether constitutional requirements have been met and whether appellants’ fundamental right to an adequate education has been violated.”
Now, the original case, filed by the parents of several students attending Minneapolis and St. Paul public schools, will head back to district court in Hennepin County. There, attorneys for the families will attempt to prove that the state and its public school systems have contributed to school segregation — and unequal treatment of students — through their policy decisions. If they are successful, the court would have to order the state to desegregate its schools, a prospect that prompted a range of responses on Wednesday from school administrators, parents and education advocates.
Daniel Shulman, one of the attorneys who represented the families who filed the suit, said he was “thrilled” with a decision that could resonate in states around the country with similar “adequate education” clauses in their constitutions.
“[The ruling] says if we prove what is in our complaint, we will show the state has violated the law,” he said.
Among the policies Shulman says have contributed to segregation are decisions about where to set boundaries for school districts and attendance areas, using federal and state desegregation money for other purposes and exempting public charter schools from desegregation plans. He said that while state law allows parents to send their children to schools outside their neighborhood or their school district, that flexibility doesn’t amount to better outcomes for their students if the choice is between segregated or poor-quality schools.
“Yes, parents have a right to choose,” he said. “However, that must be a meaningful, constitutional choice.”
But advocates for charter schools, including those that serve exclusively or primarily students of color, are wary. In a news conference outside Friendship Academy of the Arts, a south Minneapolis charter elementary school, parents organized by the group EdAllies said they worry the court battle could end up limiting families’ options or tying considerations about how schools perform to the racial makeup of their students.
Khulia Pringle, who also works at a charter school in St. Paul, said policymakers need to think more broadly about improving the quality of education for all students and consider the needs of different groups of students that might not be addressed in all traditional public schools.
“Just because a black body is put into a classroom with a white body does not mean academic outcomes are going to go up,” she said.
Charvez Russell, the executive director of Friendship Academy, said Minnesota has enough policies in place to ensure schools like his are meeting state standards, and that a push to desegregate schools would distract from the work those schools are doing for their students.
“The conversation that needs to happen in the first place is how to ensure our kids of color are receiving a high-quality education ... as opposed to who’s sitting next to who,” he said.
A spokesman for the Minnesota Attorney General’s Office, which argued the case on behalf of the state, referred questions to the Minnesota Department of Education.
Josh Collins, a spokesman for that department, said in a statement that state education officials are still reviewing the court’s decision, adding that “the Minnesota Department of Education will continue to prioritize equity as a pillar of our work, and we are committed to ensuring that each student achieves their fullest potential.”
In court, an attorney representing the department argued that the educational experiences provided to students across the state don’t have to be identical to be considered “uniform” or adequate. State officials pushed back against the claims that differences between schools and districts amount to a constitutional violation.
Justice G. Barry Anderson, joined by Chief Justice Lorie Skjerven Gildea, dissented with the court’s majority. Justice Paul Thissen, who joined the court after the case was presented, did not take part in the decision.