MN Supreme Court: Racial imbalances in schools alone don’t violate state constitution

A Justice answers a question
Supreme Court Associate Justice Margaret H. Chutich answers a question from a Richfield High School student during the Q&A section after the court hears oral arguments in the Cruz-Guzman case at the Richfield High School Auditorium on May 2.
Kerem Yücel | MPR News

By themselves, racial imbalances in Twin Cities schools do not violate Minnesota’s Constitution, the state Supreme Court said Wednesday in a case with the potential to remake the racial and socioeconomic structure of schools statewide.

The high court’s opinion largely backed a Minnesota Appeals Court ruling last year against lead plaintiff Alejandro Cruz-Guzman and other parents who argued that racial and socioeconomic segregation in schools led to achievement gaps between white students and children of color and those living in poverty.

“We hold that racial imbalances in Minneapolis and St. Paul public schools, as compared to other schools in the same school district, are not sufficient, standing alone, to establish a violation of the Education Clause of the Minnesota Constitution,” wrote Justice Margaret Chutich.

While Cruz-Guzman and his supporters did not have to prove that state action caused the racial imbalances, they would have to prove that the racial imbalances “are a substantial factor in causing their children to receive an inadequate education,” Chutich wrote.

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Despite the ruling, a lawyer representing Cruz-Guzman applauded the court’s decision, saying it allows the case to return to the lower courts to decide the specific question of whether racial imbalances contribute to an inadequate education.

Attorney Dan Shulman said it means his clients won’t have to show intent or cause by the state, only that racial imbalance exists and contributes to inadequate education.

“It is a complete victory for us,” he told MPR News. “We’re going to go back to the district court and we’re going to prove what they say we have to prove."

The decision also affects publicly funded charter schools that enroll largely students of color by choice and say they’ve shown academic success.

“I was pleased to see the court recognizing the fact that a school district or school setting that is comprised primarily of students of color is not on its face inadequate, which to me is a concern that that argument would even be advanced in the first place,” said Nekima Levy Armstrong, a civil rights attorney representing charter schools that have intervened in the case.

“I'm not sure why Dan Shulman sees this case as a complete victory,” she added. “I think it's going to be a challenge to prove that having more white students in a classroom or in a school district is going to automatically result in better academic outcomes for students of color.”

Wednesday’s 5-1 court opinion also drew a blistering dissent from Chief Justice Natalie Hudson, who’s been on the court since 2015, when Cruz-Guzman first filed, and was recently appointed to the chief justice position by Gov. Tim Walz.

“Although segregation in public schools is no longer mandated by ordinances and statutes, a confluence of public and private forces have kept the ugly heritage of segregation alive,” Hudson wrote, noting the state’s history of housing discrimination, “wealth disparities and government indifference” to people of color.

“I would hold that the de facto segregation in Minneapolis and St. Paul public schools is sufficient, standing alone, to establish a violation of the Education Clause,” she said.

On Morning Edition: Education journalist Beth Hawkins on MN Supreme Court ruling

Yearslong battle over state’s education clause

Cruz-Guzman and other parents with students in the Minneapolis and St. Paul school districts filed the class-action lawsuit against the state, the Department of Education and the Legislature in 2015.

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. 

Their focus was on the Minnesota Constitution’s education clause, which states: “The stability of a republican form of government depending mainly upon the intelligence of the people, it is the duty of the legislature to establish a general and uniform system of public schools. The legislature shall make such provisions by taxation or otherwise as will secure a thorough and efficient system of public schools throughout the state.”

In 2018 the Minnesota Supreme Court ruled the case could be decided in court. 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. 

The Supreme Court in May held oral arguments on the case at Richfield High School rather than its St. Paul courtroom.

At the Richfield High hearing, Shulman said he wanted the court to rule that segregation, even if unintentional, is a violation of the state constitution’s education clause.

That didn’t happen. Still Shulman on Wednesday said the Minnesota Supreme Court ruling meant that “all we have to show is that racial imbalance exists, and that the students receiving an inadequate education are subject to the racial imbalance. And that racial imbalance is a contributing factor in causing the inadequate education.”

Levy Armstrong said she felt the court decision respected parent choice in choosing schools. “What’s at stake is parent choice as well as the ability for schools to create culturally affirming environments for students of color … not to mention all the problems that often exist in predominantly white schools when students of color attend.”