Commentary

School segregation violates the Minnesota Constitution, whether done on purpose or not

October 13, 2022 7:11 am

State judges have improperly relied on federal law in the Minnesota school desegregation case, the author argues. Photo via Kansas Historical Society.

Here’s a legal conundrum it shouldn’t take a lawyer to solve: if Minnesota children are attending failing, racially segregated schools, can the state say “Oops, it was an accident” and ignore the problem? That may seem illogical. But according to a recent court decision, that’s exactly how it works.

In the Twin Cities, K-12 education is racially divided. The share of students of color enrolled in intensely segregated schools — meaning more than 90% nonwhite — has grown sharply over the past decade. Over one in four Black children are in an intensely segregated school, and about one in six Latino children are. The region still includes dozens of nearly all-white schools, too. 

Decades of research shows that school segregation causes dismal academic and life outcomes for students of color.

In 2018, the Minnesota Supreme Court said it was “self-evident that a segregated system of public schools” violates the Minnesota Constitution, because it violates the Legislature’s duty to provide a K-12 system that is “general, uniform, thorough, and efficient.”

So are Twin Cities schools unconstitutionally segregated?

If you say yes, you’re in good company, agreeing with some of the most experienced civil rights attorneys in America. But unfortunately, at the end of September, an appellate court looked at this exact legal question, and came to the opposite conclusion. The court decided that, in Minnesota, some kinds of racial segregation don’t deprive students of any rights. 

The background here is the long-running lawsuit Cruz-Guzman v. State of Minnesota. First filed in 2015, the case was brought by seven public school parents in the Minneapolis and St. Paul school districts. The parents allege that current racial and economic segregation in the Twin Cities school system violates the education clause of the Minnesota Constitution, which obligates the Legislature to create an adequate K-12 system for all children. According to the Cruz-Guzman parents, that same segregation also impedes students’ fundamental right to an education.

The Cruz-Guzman lawsuit has yet to go to a full trial, but it’s already been considered by the Minnesota Supreme Court.  

In 2017, a court of appeals decided to toss out much of the lawsuit on a preliminary motion, claiming that the constitution’s education clause was unenforceable in court. 

The next year, in a resounding win for the parents, the state Supreme Court reversed that decision. It pointed out that a constitutional right with no means of enforcement isn’t much of a right at all. The Supreme Court also emphasized that American judges had a long tradition of tackling school segregation, reaching back to Brown v. Board of Education — perhaps the most famous court case in U.S. history. And in a seemingly portentous footnote, the Supreme Court stated that it was “self-evident” that segregated schools would violate the Minnesota Constitution, citing Brown v. Board

The 2018 decision seemed to leave the Cruz-Guzman parents in a strong position. But after two years of settlement talks that went nowhere, the lawsuit is back in the courts. That’s led Minnesota to the legal question above: If schools are segregated, and segregation is unconstitutional, shouldn’t the parents win the lawsuit outright? Shouldn’t the courts find that the intense racial segregation in Twin Cities schools violates state law?

In a reversal of fortune for civil rights advocates, both a Hennepin County district court and an appellate court have decided no. A motion for quick judgment by the parents was rejected by the trial judge. Several weeks ago, the state court of appeals affirmed that decision, with similar reasoning.

Blurring two sets of law

What’s changed is that both courts have abruptly imported several ideas from federal civil rights law. State and federal civil rights law are often similar, but they’re not identical. In Cruz-Guzman, the district and appellate judges blurred together the two sets of law — dubiously so. 

The main hangup is a question over the state’s intent. The Cruz-Guzman parents have compelling evidence that Twin Cities schools are racially divided. But they haven’t shown irrefutable evidence that the racial divides were purposefully caused by Minnesota state leaders. Without that, according to both the district and appellate courts, there’s no clear constitutional violation. 

This idea doesn’t come from anything the Minnesota supreme court has said. Instead, it comes from the U.S. Supreme Court, which has long sorted segregation into two categories: de jure, or segregation intentionally caused by government policy; and de facto, segregation caused by anything else. In federal constitutional law, de jure segregation is forbidden but de facto segregation is allowed. 

Unfortunately, while it might initially seem convenient to use these same categories in Minnesota, it doesn’t really make a lot of sense. The problem is that the Minnesota Constitution and the U.S. Constitution are worried about school segregation for completely different reasons.

In Minnesota, school segregation is a problem because segregated schools don’t meet the standards laid out in the state constitution. The constitution’s education clause is focused on ensuring that students and families have access to schools of sufficient quality. Given that, why does it matter if school segregation was caused intentionally? To the child in the classroom of a failing school, all segregation looks the same, regardless of whether some distant policymaker produced it accidentally or maliciously. Constitutional standards aren’t being met either way. 

By contrast, the U.S. Constitution contains no education clause, no legislative duty to provide schools, and no fundamental right to education. Instead, the federal constitution promises something else: “Equal protection of the laws,” guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment. Federal civil rights are violated by unequal treatment. In federal law, school segregation isn’t a problem because it produces bad academic outcomes, but because it’s a way of treating two groups differently. 

Alas, in their recent decisions, Minnesota’s lower courts have mushed these two concepts together. In effect, what they have done is shave down Minnesotans’ educational civil rights — at least, as they relate to racial segregation — into an exact copy of federal rights. All the additional protections added by the state constitution have vanished, because in order to enforce them, Cruz-Guzman parents would have to prove the same facts as in a federal court. 

It now seems likely that the state Supreme Court will review the case for the second time in five years. If the lower court rulings are upheld, it’s a tragic step back for Minnesota. 

In the area of school segregation, federal courts are not a good role model. The federal judiciary has long been dominated by conservatives deeply skeptical of civil rights, rolling back school desegregation efforts wherever they could. Federal judges often have no authority to do anything at all about egregiously segregated schools, except in the few instances where the racist intent of school authorities can be demonstrated. 

Minnesota, by contrast, has historically taken a more open-minded, practical approach to school integration. As early as the 1970s some state authorities were attempting to prevent de facto segregation. 

And the Minnesota Supreme Court, in its previous Cruz-Guzman decision, signaled that it was more than willing to meet the modern-day challenges of protecting the constitutional rights of Minnesota children. 

One section of the court’s opinion concluded with a resolute statement of purpose. “We will not shy away from our proper role to provide remedies for violations  of fundamental rights merely because education is a complex area,” the justices wrote. “It is ultimately the judiciary’s responsibility to determine what our constitution requires and whether the Legislature has fulfilled its constitutional duty.”

As the court previously recognized, that duty can’t be met when schools are segregated. It would be a travesty to allow the Legislature to dodge its responsibilities to Minnesota children simply by pleading ignorance.

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Will Stancil
Will Stancil

Will Stancil is a research fellow at the University of Minnesota Law School Institute on Metropolitan Opportunity. His work focuses on civil rights law and policy in housing and education.

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