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School desegregation case goes to state Supreme Court

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Lead plaintiff Alejandro Cruz-Guzman, second from left, and his children
Lead plaintiff Alejandro Cruz-Guzman, second from left, and his children pose in the Minnesota Judicial Center after oral arguments before the state Supreme Court Jan. 9, 2018.
Solvejg Wastvedt | MPR News

A case claiming persistent school segregation effectively denies Minnesota children an adequate education went before the state Supreme Court Tuesday. Here's what you need to know:

Who brought the case, and what's it about?

Seven families with children in Minneapolis and St. Paul school districts and a Minneapolis nonprofit, One Family One Community, filed the lawsuit in 2015. They sued the state, state officials and legislative leaders.

Lead plaintiff Alejandro Cruz-Guzman and the other families claimed racially and economically segregated schools have caused academic achievement gaps between children of color and white children, and between metro and suburban students. The suit seeks to force the state to desegregate schools.

Plaintiffs' lawyer Dan Shulman filed a similar lawsuit over school segregation more than 20 years ago. "We now have segregation that is as bad — it's actually worse — than when we started that first case," Shulman said when the suit was filed.

What issues are before the Minnesota Supreme Court?

The court is considering a few preliminary issues, including what kind of educational rights do students have under the Minnesota constitution, and can courts rule on whether those rights are being violated?

In Tuesday's oral arguments, Deputy Attorney General Karen Olson argued for the state that deciding educational quality is not a judge's job. Olson said the Minnesota constitution doesn't guarantee children a particular quality of education. Based on the state constitution and prior cases, Olson said, the constitution requires a "general and uniform system" of education. Not a "good" education or any other particulars about educational quality. Olson said legislators have to set quality standards. And lawmakers have delegated a lot of control to local school districts.

Daniel Sellers of the group EdAllies says dismissing the case could hurt students and parents. EdAllies is not a party to the suit and doesn't support the plaintiffs' broader claims. But on the points currently before the Court, Sellers says a dismissal that's as broad as the Appeals Court's decision could prevent families from using the courts to defend their educational rights. "It would say, essentially, that the only thing that's mandated and required in the state constitution is four walls and a teacher in front of the classroom, and anything having to do with the quality of education is not up for discussion in the courts," he said.

How have school districts responded?

School districts are not part of the case. However, Minneapolis, St. Paul, and other metro and suburban districts are working on school integration plans of their own. A group of districts calling themselves "Reimagine Minnesota" issued a report last month.

After multiple community meetings, Anoka-Hennepin superintendent David Law said the group did not hear much support for moving students to create integration. "An overwhelming voice wasn't 'desegregate schools,'" he said.

Law said recommendations focused instead on improving all schools through steps like increasing student input and working with local colleges to diversify teacher workforces.

Could the Minnesota Supreme Court force Minnesota schools to desegregate?

At this stage, the state Supreme Court can't rule on the merits of the case. The court would have to send the case back to the district court for evidence to be presented. Justices could also choose to dismiss the case.

Shulman said if the plaintiffs prevail, a metro-wide desegregation plan would be one possible outcome. However, lawmakers would be tasked with crafting the particulars of the solution.