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Are Charters Exempt from Desegregation Mandates? Minnesota Case May Have National Implications

July 11, 2019

The Progressive recently featured an article by Sarah Lahm describing the status of a desegregation lawsuit in Minnesota that could have national implications. She opens her article with this overview:

Earlier this month, Susan Robinar, a Minnesota district court judge, refused to exempt the state’s charter schools from a desegregation lawsuit.

The case, Cruz-Guzman v. State of Minnesota, was initially filed in 2015 on behalf of a handful of public school parents in the Twin Cities. These plaintiffs allege that Minnesota’s increasingly segregated public schools are operating in violation of the state Constitution, which affirms that “it is the duty of the legislature to establish a general and uniform system of public schools.” Students of color, the lawsuit insists, are receiving what amounts to a separate and unequal education in Minneapolis and St. Paul, the state’s two largest cities.

This problem has been exacerbated by the number of racially segregated charter schools in Minnesota, according to the plaintiffs.Minnesota lawmakers authorized the nation’s first privately managed, publicly funded K-12 charter school law in 1991. At the time, lawmakers also stipulated that charter schools should be “exempt from most state and local laws and regulations.” 

Thanks to a 1999 ruling, this exemption status has meant that charter schools have not had to follow the same desegregation rules as the state’s traditional public schools. The state’s first charter school, City Academy, opened in 1992. By 2018, Minnesota hosted 164 charters, enrolling over 56,000 students. Nationally, more than three million K-12 students are enrolled in charter schools.

The tension between the duty of the legislature to establish a general and uniform system of public schools and laws that stipulate that charter schools should be “exempt from most state and local laws and regulations”  is not limited to Minnesota. The whole idea behind charter schools is that teachers need to be freed from onerous regulations that prevent innovative ideas… but in the South and now arguably across the nation charters become de facto segregated schools by virtue of establishing barriers to entry explicitly tied to standardized tests, their refusal to offer special education programs, and/or their rigid discipline systems.

It’s taken years for the lawsuit to wend its way through the Minnesota courts and Dan Shulman, the attorney who filed the suit four years ago, is persistent and he knows that the case could have consequences beyond Minnesota:

Shulman has been clear about his own hopes for the lawsuit, telling Politico’s Morning Education report in 2018 that he thinks the case could have “national implications.” The framework presented by the case is that the state—and not individual schools or school districts—has an obligation to abide by its own constitution,and ensure that all Minnesota children have access to a “general and uniform system of public schools.”

Publicly-funded charter schools’ long-standing exemption from this requirement may soon be coming to an end. Both parties in the lawsuit are engaged in mediation, with a possible trial date slated for 2020.

Should Mr. Shulman win it will be a victory for children who have been denied the opportunity to attend schools of comparable quality to the charters that were presumably designed to accomplish that outcome. In the meantime, five years of resegregation will continue…. and, if the 1954 Supreme Court case is any indication, change will be an even longer time coming.

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