Doesn’t your child deserve a good education? Doesn’t every Minnesota child? The authors of our state Constitution thought so. They included language that requires the Legislature to provide Minnesota children a “thorough and efficient system of public schools.”
But what if the Legislature doesn’t do its job? Must we sit quietly and do nothing? Katherine Kersten must think so. Her attack on the families who want the Legislature to do its job (“A general mess,” Oct. 7) demonstrates indifference to the quality of the education our children are getting as well as acceptance of a racially segregated school system.
The plaintiffs in Cruz-Guzman vs. State of Minnesota want a chance to prove to a Minnesota court that the Minnesota Legislature has violated the rights of the children of Minneapolis and St. Paul by operating a racially segregated educational system. Rejecting arguments that Kersten tries to rehash, the state Supreme Court has now given them that chance.
At the heart of this case are children — children who are in schools that are failing them. Minnesota has some of the worst achievement gaps in the country between white children and children of color. Our children of color are far behind their white peers, and segregated schools are part of the problem. Our country’s painful history has taught us that separate is not equal.
All parts of our government are responsible for delivering on a promise of equality, a promise that we break every day. Alejandro Cruz-Guzman and other parents are fighting for that promise, because all children in Minnesota deserve a good education in a good school.
Is allowing these families to hold the Legislature accountable “judicial activism,” as Kersten claims? Hardly. The law in Minnesota since 1871 has been that Minnesotans are entitled to “an education which will fit them to discharge intelligently their duties as citizens of the republic.” And in 1993 the Minnesota Supreme Court held that the right under our Constitution’s Education Clause to a “general and uniform system of education” that provides an adequate education to all students in Minnesota is “fundamental,” the most valuable and most highly protected category of constitutional rights.
There is nothing “activist” about a court deciding whether other branches of our government have violated our rights. The U.S. Supreme Court settled that question 215 years ago in Marbury vs. Madison. Courts deciding such issues are not being “activist”; they are performing their constitutional duty.
The plaintiffs in Cruz-Guzman do not want courts to take control over our educational system. They want the Legislature to do its job of providing a good education to Minnesota students. Courts in more than 20 states agree with our Supreme Court’s opinion in Cruz-Guzman that courts can require their legislatures to comply with their constitutions. These states have not seen a “takeover” of their education systems by the courts. Indeed, the Minnesota Supreme Court expressly rejected this bugaboo, explaining that what the plaintiffs seek is the answer to a “yes or no question”: Has the Legislature satisfied its obligation under the Constitution’s Education Clause?
If, after hearing evidence, the district court determines that the answer to that question is “no,” both the Supreme Court and the plaintiffs agree that the Legislature should be required to do something about it.
Sadly, some people want to ignore the fact that segregation in schools is increasing across the Twin Cities and outside the metropolitan area. The University of Minnesota Law School’s Institute on Metropolitan Opportunity found that, between 1995 and 2015, the number of heavily segregated schools increased from six to 100, and that Minneapolis and St. Paul schools are more segregated today than they were in the 1970s. This is the result of deliberate policy choices by the Legislature in violation of its constitutional obligations.
School desegregation in Minnesota is governed by rules established in 1999, which were found inadequate in 2005 by the Office of the Legislative Auditor. Attempts to change the rules have failed. That failure falls squarely on the shoulders of the Legislature.
No wonder the parents in Cruz-Guzman want help from the courts. But all they want the courts to do is to order the Legislature to do its job — a job the state Constitution requires it to do. All Minnesotans can be part of the solution. Our elected officials, especially those in the Legislature, need to hear from us, their constituents, that we value quality and equality in education. See you on Nov. 6.
John Gordon is executive director and Teresa Nelson is legal director, American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota. William Z. Pentelovich is board chair of the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota Foundation and along with Jesse D. Mondry practices law at Maslon LLP. The four filed a friend-of-the-court brief at the Minnesota Supreme Court in the Cruz-Guzman case.