Lawsuit claims state allows segregated schools

Legal team seeks a metro-wide integration plan

Attorney Dan Shulman, at podium, filed a lawsuit alleging school segregation is harming poor students and students of color. Credit: Dylan Thomas

A class action lawsuit filed Nov. 5 alleges the state has allowed the creation of schools segregated by race and income in the Twin Cities, disproportionately harming poor students and students of color.

The legal team behind the lawsuit advocates a metro-wide integration plan that includes the redrawing of attendance boundaries, maintaining that the Minneapolis and St. Paul districts cannot create better-integrated schools by themselves. The plaintiffs in the case include seven families with students enrolled in Minneapolis or St. Paul public schools and One Family One Community, a Minneapolis-based non-profit community organization.

“We are going to ensure that the Twin Cities become a national leader in educating all children … and not as we are today, an absolute failure, nationally, with one of the largest so-called learning gaps in the country,” John Shulman, one of the attorneys who brought the suit, said.

Named as defendants are the State of Minnesota, the Minnesota Department of Education, Commissioner of Education Brenda Cassellius and both houses of the state legislature. As of press time, Cassellius hadn’t commented on the lawsuit since the day it was filed, when in a written statement she said she had not yet read the complaint.

“However,” her statement read, “the Minnesota Department of Education is committed to helping every student achieve academic success.”

A Minneapolis Public School spokesperson declined to comment, noting the lawsuit names the state and not individual districts.

Resistance to busing

School Board Member Rebecca Gagnon, who is also the current chair of the Association of Metropolitan School Districts, expressed doubts about the remedy proposed in the lawsuit.

“I don’t think it’s feasible that we radically change the boundaries in the metro area,” Gagnon said, adding that extensive use of busing in the past “damaged” schools and communities.

The district purposely shifted away from long-distance busing with the Changing School Options plan approved by the School Board in 2009. The last significant change to transportation rules and school attendance boundaries in Minneapolis, it aimed to encourage families to attend community schools in their neighborhoods.

“It seems to be building stronger school communities,” Gagnon said.

But the complaint alleges that the plan made school segregation worse, particularly in the part of town where Gagnon lives. Dividing the city into three large attendance zones “has the effect of isolating the wealthier and whiter sections of Southwest Minneapolis from the rest of the city,” the complaint states.

At the time, the district pitched the zones as a way to keep rising transportation costs under control.

Gagnon made clear she was speaking for herself; the School Board hadn’t yet issued a statement on the lawsuit. She also noted she knows two of the defendants well: Roxxanne O’Brien and Diwin O’Neal Daley.

On the day the lawsuit was filed, O’Brien said the real damage was caused by segregation.

“Keeping us separate doesn’t do any justice to anyone,” O’Brien, the parent of three Minneapolis students, said. “It doesn’t teach us how to live together. It doesn’t teach people how to work with each other. To me, it’s very irresponsible. It causes people to grow up and question who they are.”

Links to housing

The legal team on the class action lawsuit was also behind two 1990s lawsuits whose settlement led to the creation of the Choice is Yours program. Through Choice is Yours, low-income Minneapolis families were given the option to open enroll in suburban schools, with busing provided.

Attorney Dan Shulman, a principal at Minneapolis law firm Gray Plant Mooty, said Choice is Yours was “meant to be a first step.” (Dan Shulman is also John Shulman’s father.)

“We were looking for a second step and a third step and a fourth step, and there were no other steps taken,” he said. “Instead, there were steps taken backwards.”

Myron Orfield, a University of Minnesota law professor and director of the Institute on Metropolitan Opportunity, said regional housing patterns have made the task of integrating schools much more challenging.

“Minneapolis is building as much low-income housing as pretty much every (suburb) combined and building it all in segregated neighborhoods and segregated school attendance areas,” Orfield said.

Concentrated poverty and segregated school settings are both considered factors in the so-called school-to-prison pipeline. The phrase describes a phenomenon where low-income students and students of color are more likely to face harsh discipline for misbehavior in school and, after suspensions or expulsion, are then more likely to enter the criminal justice system.

“I don’t think kids should spend (more) time on buses, but if the choice is college or prison, I think a lot of people will take a bus,” Orfield said.

He suggested part of the solution was for the Minneapolis and St. Paul districts to draw more metro-area students into the core cities with attractive educational options.

“Minneapolis should be thinking about creating more magnet schools that draw suburban kids in,” he said.

Benefits of integration

That integrated school settings benefit all students is supported by a substantial body of research summarized a widely cited report by the UCLA Civil Rights Project issued last year on the 60th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education.

The report notes a gradual and widespread re-segregation in recent decades. Today, black and Latino students are much more likely to attend schools struggling with the effects of poverty, while white and Asian students are more likely to attend schools filled with middle-class students.

The complaint filed this month in Hennepin County District Court states Minneapolis Public Schools has allowed the formation of “hyper-segregated schools” where students of color and students eligible for free or reduced price lunch approach or exceed 80 percent of the school population. It goes on to state the opposite is also true, that some district schools in South and Southwest Minneapolis are overwhelmingly white and serve few students in poverty.

The complaint makes similar claims about St. Paul Public Schools and states that charter schools have “exacerbated” the situation. It states that nearly one-third of Twin Cities charters are more than 95 percent students of color.

“Charter schools are … exempted from any desegregation rules or guidelines,” Dan Shulman said. “That is a blatant attempt by the state to enable segregation, because almost all of these charter schools are segregated white or minority.”

Plaintiff Diwin O’Neal Daley, the father of two Seward Montessori School students, said, in particular, the outcomes for black boys — who lag behind their peers in Minneapolis in many measures of achievement, including graduation — were disappointing and saddening.

“It looks like we’re turning back the clock,” Daley said.

He said he joined the lawsuit not just for his children, but for children across the state.

“Desegregation is the only way future children, or even children right now, can get a proper education,” Daley said.

Plaintiff Diwin O’Neal Daley speaks while fellow plaintiff Alejandro Cruz-Guzman and attorney John Shulman, far left, look on. Photo by Dylan Thomas