Hundreds of students gathered in a school auditorium in Richfield, Minn., Tuesday morning to listen to the oral arguments in a legal case that has the potential to re-make the racial and socio-economic structure of schools statewide.
Plaintiffs, including parents of students who attended Twin Cities schools, argued that racial and socioeconomic segregation in Minnesota schools has led to achievement gaps and is a violation of the state constitution’s education clause.
But there are some who worry a decision in favor of the plaintiffs in this case would harm students of color who attend charter schools that cater to specific groups.
The class-action lawsuit against the state Department of Education and the Legislature was first filed in 2015 by lead plaintiff, Alejandro Cruz-Guzman, together with other parents who had students in Twin Cities school districts.
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They argued racial and socioeconomic segregation in Twin Cities schools has led to education achievement gaps between children of color, those living in poverty and white students.
In 2018 the Minnesota Supreme Court ruled the case could be decided in court. Then, in 2021, the two sides reached an agreement in mediation to integrate schools, but that plan failed to pass the Legislature.
In 2022, the Minnesota Court of Appeals ruled against Cruz-Guzman and other parents who were part of that group, saying that the existence of a racially imbalanced school system does not violate the state constitution unless it’s intentional.
In Tuesday’s hearing, the plaintiffs asked the supreme court to overrule last year’s decision.
American Civil Liberties Union lawyer, Dan Shulman, who’s representing the plaintiffs, said he wants the court to rule that segregation, even if unintentional, is a violation of the state constitution’s education clause.
“We believe that segregation of any kind that occurs, whether it's intentional or not, violates the education clause, because students are not receiving a general, uniform, thorough, efficient and adequate education, which is required under Minnesota law,” Shulman said.
Shulman said he hopes the court will rule in his clients’ favor in at least one of three ways: that racial imbalance in schools is in itself a violation of the education clause, or that, if students are receiving an inadequate education in a segregated school, then that’s a violation of the educational clause or that unintentional segregation that results in an inadequate education is a violation of the education clause.
He said he wants to see better integration in Minnesota schools. If courts decide in his clients’ favor, Shulman said, “the Legislature would have to do something about the segregation — it's not just racial, it's also socioeconomic,” he continued.
“The effect for families, we hope and intend, is that their kids are going to go to better schools and get better educated, and be more productive citizens and have better lives.”
Lawyers representing the state asked the court to send the case back to district court.
“It’s a narrow question: whether the education clause of Minnesota’s constitution requires a particular demographic mix in each school. It does not,” State Solicitor General Liz Kramer, who’s representing the state, argued on Tuesday.
There are others who are concerned about the consequences of justices siding with the Cruz-Guzman plaintiffs in this case.
Nekima Levy Armstrong, a civil rights lawyer, is representing several different charter schools as intervenors in the case. One of the schools, Friendship Academy, has a student population that’s more than 90 percent Black.
Levy-Armstrong argued schools like Friendship Academy are necessary because they create an environment where minority students can be affirmed and see their cultures, ethnicities and identities valued.
“Not all schools are welcoming to our children. We need schools like Friendship Academy, that are culturally affirming, that are intentional about raising up our young people, instilling in them a sense of confidence, understanding their heritage, understanding the contributions of people who look like them and the fact that they matter in this society,” Levy-Armstrong said.
Tuesday’s proceedings took place, not in the Supreme Court chambers, but at Richfield High School. It’s part of a program that happens about twice a year, going back to 1995.
Justices heard arguments from a stage in the school auditorium and then, after a short recess, returned to answer student questions before visiting classrooms for further conversations with kids.
Niya Briggs, a ninth grader, asked Justice Natalie Hudson for career advice:
“I’d like to get into law myself,” Briggs said. “My question is for the lady in pink, gorgeous by the way, I’m just wondering, how do you guys get into this sort of thing?”
After the hearings, Briggs said she found the proceedings both interesting and at times difficult to understand. She also said was unimpressed by the arguments the plaintiff was making.
Minnesota Supreme Court judges typically take several months to decide on cases.
MPR News reporter Feven Gerezgiher contributed to this story.