MN High Court: School Racial Imbalances Alone Don’t Violate State Constitution

After eight years of procedural wrangling and appeals, a high-profile desegregation suit may proceed to trial, says Minnesota’s Supreme Court.

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In its second decision regarding an eight-year-old school desegregation case, the Minnesota Supreme Court has ruled that racial imbalances in Minneapolis and St. Paul public schools do not necessarily on their own violate the state constitution. The Dec. 13 order returns the class-action lawsuit to a Minneapolis district court, where it may proceed to trial. 

Plaintiffs had sought the Supreme Court decision to short-circuit the standard trial court process, asking the justices to rule that the existence of racially imbalanced Twin Cities schools by itself proved their case.

If the families who brought the 2015 suit, Alejandro Cruz-Guzman vs. State of Minnesota, move forward, they will not have to prove that the state intended to create segregated schools. They will need to show only that schools in each community ended up with racial imbalances.

They will, however, have to demonstrate that those enrollment patterns deprive some groups of students of the “adequate” education they are guaranteed under the state constitution. Over the last quarter-century, Minnesota has required traditional school districts to make good-faith efforts toward integration, resulting in a tangle of ineffective “voluntary” rules.

In trying to craft rules that conform to the law, officials have not been able to prove that racial isolation per se results in poor academic outcomes. Nonetheless, the task forces and policymakers have repeatedly concluded that a large bipartisan majority of people value diverse schools for moral and cultural reasons. 

The decision overturns a ruling from a state appellate court, which held that only “intentional segregation of the type described by the Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education” would violate the state constitution.

The lawsuit asks the court to find that Minnesota laws allowing students to attend schools outside their home districts and in public charter schools contribute to segregation. Charter schools are specifically exempted from the state’s integration rules, which require districts to make good-faith efforts to foster diversity. The plaintiffs asked the court to overturn the relevant portion of the charter school law. 

In response, a number of charter schools were allowed to join the case. While students apply for seats in blind lotteries, a number of Minnesota charters now enroll students almost entirely of a single race or culture. Several of the schools that joined the suit dramatically outperform their traditional district counterparts, complicating the plaintiffs’ argument that racial imbalances alone deny students their right to an adequate education.

If the plaintiffs prevail, attorneys for the charter schools have argued, the high-performing schools would be hard-pressed to continue with their culturally affirming models — which serve the families who sought them out — while responding to pressure to enroll a racial and ethnic cross-section of students. 

In the main opinion, the justices made a distinction between state and district policies that exclude particular groups of students — intentionally isolating or segregating children — and the existence of racial imbalances. 

Newly installed Chief Justice Natalie Hudson, the first Black woman to hold the post, issued a blistering dissent, arguing that “de facto segregation” in Twin Cities schools by definition violates the state’s constitution. 

Attorneys for the plaintiffs have not yet said whether they plan to proceed to trial.

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