A long-running lawsuit over school segregation in the Twin Cities will move forward, after a Hennepin County judge ruled against an effort by a group of charter schools that had sought to stay out of the lawsuit — and attempted to challenge the merits of the entire case.

The case, Cruz-Guzman v. State of Minnesota, dates to 2015, when a handful of families sued the state, arguing that it had created an unequal education system by enabling segregation in public schools. Among the policies the families cited as a cause for segregation: the state's exemption of charter schools from desegregation plans. Attorneys representing three charter schools — including two that almost exclusively serve black students — intervened in the case, arguing that the court should recognize a difference between charter schools designed specifically for particular groups of students and public schools that have been de facto segregated because of a lack of investment.

In her ruling, Judge Susan Robiner wrote that the question of whether the state was right in exempting charter schools from desegregation plans is one of many that will be taken into account if and when the case goes to trial. The case is now in mediation, but if that fails, it could go to trial in 2020. Even if the law exempts charter schools from some of the requirements for traditional public schools, Robiner wrote, they are still subject to legal scrutiny.

"It does not exempt them from the Minnesota Constitution, or any potential oversight role of a court should a constitutional violation be found," she wrote.

Daniel Shulman, one of the attorneys who represents the families who filed the suit, said he was pleased with the court's decision to not leave charter schools out of the lawsuit. He said he doesn't agree with the distinction between charter and traditional public schools, even if parents are making the choice to enroll their children in a charter school they feel best serves their needs.

"If the public schools are so bad that they feel they have to send their kid to a charter school, you could say they are being forced into making that choice," he said. "We're not against parent choice, we want meaningful parent choice, and that does not exist today, with underperforming, segregated schools."

But Nekima Levy Armstrong, an attorney representing the charter schools, said it's critical that parents — especially parents of students of color — have the freedom to select "culturally affirming" schools, including those that predominantly serve a specific group. She said the notion that a school can't be successful if it isn't integrated is misguided, and that charter schools like the ones she represents provide proof.

Although more than 80% of Minnesotans are white, Levy Armstrong said everyone should recognize the value of schools that incorporate students' cultural backgrounds in a significant way.

"The rich cultural diversity that our newer communities bring to the table should be reflected within the schools that their parents decide to send them to," she said.

Erin Golden • 612-673-4790