Courts can rule on educational adequacy, ruling says

Charter school advocates such as Charvez Russell, executive director of Friendship Academy of the Arts, had mixed feeling about the state Supreme Court's ruling in Cruz-Guzman v. State of Minnesota.

The courts can decide if the State of Minnesota is providing students an adequate education, the state Supreme Court ruled this past month.

The courts can’t create educational policies, but they can decide if the Legislature is fulfilling its constitutional duty to establish a “general and uniform” system of public schools, the ruling said. Such a determination would not violate the separation-of-powers principals laid out in the state constitution, it said.

The ruling ends the state’s effort to halt the lawsuit Cruz-Guzman v. Minnesota, which alleges that the state is depriving metro-area children an adequate education by allowing segregation. The state had argued that the constitution only calls for the state to provide a “general and uniform” system of schools, not an “adequate education.” It added that even if Minnesotans have a constitutional right to an adequate education, the lawsuit would require the courts to define what an adequate education is. That, it said, is the job of the Legislature, not the courts.

In its 4-2 ruling, the Supreme Court noted a past decision that says students have the right to an “adequate” education. It said that the courts have the power to define what constitutes an adequate education and assess if the state is meeting that obligation.

“We cannot fulfill our duty to adjudicate claims of constitutional violations by unquestioningly accepting that whatever the Legislature has chosen to do fulfills the Legislature’s duty to provide an adequate education,” Associate Justice Natalie Hudson wrote in the ruling. “If the Legislature’s actions do not meet a baseline level, they will not provide an adequate education.”

Associate Justice G. Barry Anderson disagreed in a dissent ruling, which Chief Justice Lorie Skjerven Gildea joined. Anderson wrote that for the courts to find inadequacy, they first must define what is adequate. That would require the courts to write the law, a job that is assigned to the Legislature.

“Here, we take down a fence constructed to avoid judicial entanglement with political questions,” Anderson wrote of the majority’s opinion. “I fear we do not fully appreciate the consequences that will follow, not only for the other branches of government but for the judiciary as well.”

‘Unequal’ education

The lawsuit, filed by attorney Dan Shulman on behalf eight Twin Cities parents and one nonprofit, cites Brown v. Board of Education in saying segregated schools are not equal to non-segregated schools.  It says that the plaintiffs are receiving an “unequal” and “constitutionally infirm” education because they are receiving a segregated education.

The lawsuit says that research shows how children of color perform worse in segregated schools than in integrated schools. It also says that children or color and children from low-income families are disproportionately likely to be placed in special education programs if they attend segregated schools. Those children are less likely to graduate and more likely complete fewer years of education, the suit says.

Integrated schools, it says, have numerous and lasting benefits to children, it adds.

The suit notes dozens of “hyper-segregated” schools in Minneapolis and St. Paul in which children of color comprise more than 80 percent of the student population. It says the state has allowed policies and boundary changes that have created such segregation at increasing rates in recent years.

“The cumulative responsibility for educating this high proportion of students living in poverty places the Minneapolis and Saint Paul public schools at a severe educational disadvantage in comparison with suburban schools,” the suit says. “… Faced with these severe educational burdens, schools in the Minneapolis and Saint Paul School Districts have been unable to provide educational opportunities that are substantially equal to those received by school children in suburban districts.”

The suit notes how Minneapolis and St. Paul have lower graduation rates than nearby districts and how minority students in these districts have lower proficiency rates on standardized tests.

Shulman said in an interview after the Supreme Court ruling that desegregation is the one “surefire” way to improve educational outcomes.

He said he’s seeking a desegregation plan that would integrate schools across the Twin Cities.

Mixed feelings

The organization EdAllies praised the state Supreme Court’s ruling that the judicial branch can decide on educational-adequacy claims. But the group said in a press release the lawsuit risks taking the state in a wrong direction by undermining the choices of families of color.

“Too many students of color in Minnesota are not getting the education they deserve,” Tonya Draughn of Uplift MN said in the release. “We won’t fix that by undermining parents of color and taking away schools that are serving their kids well. Instead, we need to empower families of color, and get serious about finding, protecting, and replicating what’s working for their children.”

EdAllies also held a press conference at Friendship Academy of the Arts, a charter school in the Powderhorn community, on the afternoon after the decision was issued. The school’s proficiency rates on statewide standardized tests have generally been on par or above the statewide for the past four years. Almost all students at the school are black.

Charvez Russell, the school’s executive director, said the conversation needs to be about ensuring kids of color are receiving a high-quality education, not about who’s sitting next to who.

“What we need to be talking about is whether kids are learning,” Russell said. “… By making integration the bottom line, this lawsuit, what it does is it distracts us from the larger conversation that we need to be having.”

Brandie Burris-Gallagher, policy director for EdAllies, said in an interview that the lawsuit is right in that the state hasn’t served all kids well. But she said integration won’t solve all problems, noting that integrated schools often have segregation within them.

Burris-Gallagher said she, too, is happy the case is moving forward, because it allows the courts to serve as a check on the education system. But she said it’s not enough to stop the conversation at the racial makeup of the school. Further, she said she worries the case sends the message that kids of color can’t learn in places where they’re with only other kids of color.

“That flies in the face of what we’ve seen locally,” she said, noting the success of Friendship Academy.