Go to the U of M home page

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

The Minnesota Supreme Court's decision in the Cruz-Guzman school desegregation case: summary and key takeaways

Today, the Minnesota Supreme Court issued its long-awaited opinion in a landmark state desegregation case. The decision is a major victory for the plaintiffs, civil rights advocates, and opponents of school segregation. While the lawsuit is still ongoing, the court's decision has eliminated a major legal obstacle facing the plaintiffs, and strengthened their case going forward.

Although the issues before the supreme court were narrow, the court's language strongly suggests that it is willing to embrace the active elimination of segregation in Minnesota schools. Its decision may also have major implications for charter schools, and may spell trouble for another lawsuit seeking to eliminate teacher tenure in Minnesota.

These developments will be discussed below. But first, some background on the case.

The lawsuit, Cruz-Guzman v. State of Minnesota, was filed in late 2015 by a group of Minneapolis parents seeking statewide school desegregation. The plaintiffs argued that Minnesota schools are highly segregated, and that any segregated system of schools was "inherently inadequate," in violation of the state constitution.

The plaintiffs' claim relies on the "Education Clause" of the state constitution, which instructs the state legislature to create a system of schools that is both "general and uniform" and "thorough and efficient." In a previous ruling, the state supreme court had found that this language created both a legislative duty to provide a system of adequate education, and an individualized fundamental right to an education.

The Cruz-Guzman plaintiffs also made more traditional desegregation claims, arguing that schools had been intentionally segregated, violating students' constitutional right to equal protection under the law.

Importantly, the lawsuit did not seek a specific remedy. Instead, it only asked that the state recognize and eliminate the constitutional violation -- i.e., that the state find a way to eliminate segregation in its schools.

Although the lawsuit was filed only against the state, not any individual school or school district, a group of charter schools intervened after filing. The charter schools sought a declaratory judgement that they were not bound by the state's desegregation rules, and asserted that, as schools of choice, they by definition could not be segregated.

After initial motions to dismiss, the district court allowed most of the plaintiffs' claims to advance. However, before the trial began, the state appealed, and the Minnesota Court of Appeals threw out the case.

In doing so, it relied on a single, simple ground: it held that the plaintiffs' Education Clause claims were a political question more appropriate for the legislature, and therefore "nonjusticiable." In other words, the Court of Appeals said that the Education Clause's fundamental right to an adequate education was unenforceable in court, at least as it related to school segregation.

Today, after a second appeal, the state supreme court reversed that decision. It decided that enforcing the Education Clause is indeed the obligation of the courts, and that Cruz-Guzman plaintiffs could proceed.

Standing alone, this decision would constitute a major victory for civil rights advocates, giving them their day in court, so that they can make the case that Minnesota school segregation is severe, worsening, and corrosive to educational opportunity. But in addition to the court's main holding, there are several noteworthy passages which should please the plaintiffs and their supporters around the country.

The Court Endorses the Unconstitutionality of Segregation

Perhaps the weightiest statement made by the Minnesota Supreme Court in Cruz-Guzman is found in footnote 6. Despite appearing in a footnote, this passage has dramatic implications for the case. It reads as follows:
The dissent concedes that a claim of segregated schools is justiciable, but maintains that appellants’ claims are not “traditional” segregation claims and therefore the claims are not justiciable.  It is self-evident that a segregated system of public schools is not “general,” “uniform,” “thorough,” or “efficient.”  Minn. Const. art. XIII, § 1.  Regardless of whether the context is a “traditional” segregation claim or a different type of claim, courts are well equipped to decide whether a school system is segregated, and have made such determinations since Brown, 347 U.S. at 495.  
This constitutes a remarkably clear endorsement of the idea that segregated education is incompatible with the Minnesota Constitution.

In particular, the holding that it is "self-evident that a segregated system of public schools is not 'general,' 'uniform,' 'thorough,' or 'efficient," has major consequences for the resolution of Cruz-Guzman.

The first implication of this passage is that the plaintiffs' evidentiary burden is much lower than was previously assumed. Thus far, the plaintiffs have operated under the assumption that, to prove their Education Clause claims, they would have to prove two distinct facts:
  1. That Minnesota schools are segregated; and
  2. That segregated schools are inherently inadequate, and therefore violative of the Education Clause.
But in this footnote, the court dismisses all talk of "adequacy." Instead, it states that it is "self-evident" that segregated school cannot satisfy the constitutional requirements. In other words, the fact that segregation violates the Minnesota Education Clause is simply presumed. As a result, it appears that plaintiffs no longer need to focus on demonstrating the negative effects of segregation; instead, they only need to focus on proving that it exists.

As an aside, this statement also undermines an important argument of the charter school intervenors. The charter schools had hoped to make the case that segregation in charters schools did not result in an inferior, inadequate education. This footnote suggests that that claim is no longer available to them -- it leaves no room to assert that Minnesota schools can be constitutionally segregated.

The second implication of footnote 6 is that the plaintiffs do not have to prove that segregation has been created intentionally. Although the court does not explicitly mention intent, it implies that the mere fact of existing segregation would create a system that is not general and uniform.

Citations to Rose v. Council for Better Education

The court sends a second signal with an evocative citation to a landmark education law case.

In Rose v. Council for Better Education, the Kentucky Supreme Court held the state's entire school system unconstitutional, ruling that it did not meet the requirements of the state constitution. This was the first major state "school adequacy" lawsuit, touching off a national wave of state-level school litigation.

The Kentucky court famously required sweeping changes to the state's educational system in order to conform to state constitutional requirements. It wrote"[t]he children of the poor and the children of the rich, the children who live in the poor districts and the children who live in the rich districts must be given the same opportunity and access to an adequate education." It also devised six broad evaluative factors to determine whether schools were adequate.

Over time, some state courts have developed a more negative view of the Rose decision. In particular, judges have seemed concerned that Rose-like reasoning would obligate courts to conduct open-ended interventions in the education system -- a role some feel is more properly left to the legislature.

But in today's decision, the Minnesota Supreme Court expressed no such skittishness about Rose, citing the case without reservation:
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 judiciary is well equipped to assess whether constitutional requirements have been met and whether appellants’ fundamental right to an adequate education has been violated.  See, e.g., Rose v. Council for Better Educ., Inc., 790 S.W.2d 186, 212–13 (Ky. 1989); Pauley, 255 S.E.2d at 877–78.  Although the Legislature plays a crucial role in education, it is ultimately the judiciary’s responsibility to determine what our constitution requires and whether the Legislature has fulfilled its constitutional duty.
Not only does the Minnesota court embrace Rose's conclusion that the courts are ultimately responsible for delivering constitutional rights, it also suggests that it shares Rose's broad-minded approach to solutions. In particular, the opening line in the passage above is unambiguous: "We will not shy away from our proper role to provide remedies for violations of fundamental rights merely because education is a complex area." This is not the language of a court that is preparing to take a laissez-faire, soft-touch approach to an ongoing constitutional violation. Instead, it is the language of a court that seems prepared to intervene vigorously to vindicate the rights of Minnesota schoolchildren.

Discussion of "Copious Data" Showing Segregation

The merits of the plaintiffs' segregation claims were not before the court in this decision, and it did not weigh in directly on those claims. However, while laying out the history of the case, the court did include language that suggests it had found the plaintiffs' presentation of data and social science evidence to be compelling:
The complaint contains copious data demonstrating a “high degree of segregation based on race and socioeconomic status” in Minneapolis and Saint Paul public schools.  The public schools in Minneapolis and Saint Paul that appellants’ children and other school-age children attend are “disproportionately comprised of students of color and students living in poverty, as compared with a number of neighboring and surrounding schools and districts.”  These segregated and “hyper-segregated” schools have significantly worse academic outcomes in comparison with neighboring schools and suburban school districts in measures such as graduation rates; pass rates for state-mandated Basic Standards Tests; and proficiency rates in math, science, and reading.  Appellants describe these racially and socioeconomically segregated schools as “separate and unequal” from “neighboring and surrounding whiter and more affluent suburban schools” and detail the extensive harms of racial and socioeconomic segregation.  
This passage is not dispositive, of course; no trial has been held, no experts have testified, and the defendants have not responded to these claims. But most of the plaintiffs' statistical evidence is effectively unrebuttable -- straightforward statistics on changing school populations, sourced to the state's own data. In other words, if the court finds this evidence to be compelling, the defendants have a hard road ahead if they intend to change its mind.

The Court Distinguishes Cruz-Guzman from Other Adequacy Claims

Throughout its short life, the Cruz-Guzman lawsuit has been dogged by parallel claims in a superficially similar case, which was filed shortly afterwards. That case, Forslund v. Minnesota, mimics the famous Vergara lawsuit in California, and attacks Minnesota's teacher tenure law as unconstitutional.

The Forslund case, like Cruz-Guzman, relied on the state Education Clause. It claimed that many Minnesota students were receiving an inadequate education. It then argued that, because some research shows teacher labor protections and other educational regulations are correlated with reduced academic performance, those laws had to be overturned so students' right to an adequate education could be vindicated.

Because they both rely on the same constitutional provision, Forslund and Cruz-Guzman have frequently been tied together. Critics asserted that Forslund showed the dangers of allowing parents to bring Education Clause claims. If Forslund succeeded, critics claimed, any statute, rule, or policy that eroded academic performance could also be attacked as unconstitutional, reducing judges to a perfunctory policymaking role.

The two cases also tracked each other through the courts. After the Forslund case was roundly defeated in district court, it was thrown out by an appellate panel, which justified its decision by citing Cruz-Guzman and the alleged nonjusticiability of the Education Clause.  

Ironically, despite this shared history, Forslund's plaintiffs were frequently antagonistic to the desegregation plaintiffs of Cruz-Guzman. They filed an amicus brief to the supreme court in Cruz-Guzman, but did not argue that the court should allow the desegregation case to proceed. Instead, the Forslund plaintiffs only maintained that that their own claims were distinguishable and should survive. 

However, the supreme court today adopted an alternative frame, which favors Cruz-Guzman and disfavors Forslund:
Providing a remedy for Education Clause violations does not necessarily require the judiciary to exercise the powers of the Legislature.  Appellants stress that their complaint “does not actually ask the court to institute any specific policy.”  Rather, their prayer for relief asks the district court to find, adjudge, and decree that the State has engaged in the claimed constitutional violations.  (emphasis added)
In other words, Cruz-Guzman can continue because it only asks the court to declare that existing Minnesota segregation is unconstitutional, and does not seek any specific remedy. It identifies a violation of a fundamental right, but it does not seek to use the courts to implement a preferred package of policies.

The same cannot be said of Forslund. The latter case is broad and vague about the identified violation, citing, somewhat generically, lower test scores and academic performance. But it is very precise about the remedy it seeks: a specific change to a particular law. The language of the supreme court suggests that while Cruz-Guzman's claim is justiciable, Forslund may be asking the court to engage in an inappropriate exercise of legislative power.

No Exceptions for Charters

Since nearly the very beginning of the Cruz-Guzman case, charter schools, as third-party intervenors, have asserted that they are not bound by the same desegregation rules that bind traditional Minnesota schools. They have argued that state law exempts them from most desegregation requirements, that they cannot be segregated by definition, and that any government interest in segregation must be weighed by the equally important consideration of parental choice.

Today's decision makes no mention of any of these assertions. While the substance of the charter schools' claims was not before the court, the decision's use of sweeping, broad language is still suggestive -- for instance, the declaration in footnote 6 that it is "self-evident" that segregation violates the constitution. There is little to indicate that the supreme court is considering carving off a constitutional exception for charter schools, or otherwise permitting them to self-segregate in the name of parental choice or some other principle.

No comments:

Post a Comment