Court of Appeals rejects suit alleging state promotes school segregation

Attorney John Shulman spoke to reporters in November 2015 outside the Hennepin County Government Center after filing a lawsuit alleging racially segregated schools have caused a gap in achievement between minority and white students. Photo: Brandt Williams | MPR News

The Minnesota Court of Appeals has derailed a lawsuit claiming that segregation in public schools has deprived children of the state’s constitutional right to an education.

The group One Family One Community and several parents sued the state of Minnesota, Minnesota Department of Education, Minnesota Department of Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius, the Minnesota Senate, the Minnesota House of Representatives, Gov. Mark Dayton, then Senate President Sandra L. Pappas and House Speaker Kurt Daudt in November 2015.

“We are going to ensure that the Twin Cities become a national leader in educating children in the Twin Cities, and not as we are today, an absolute failure nationally — with one of the largest so-called learning gaps in the country,” John Shulman, one of the attorneys filing the suit on behalf of seven families,said in announcing it.

It asserted that children of color have not received a quality education and that “[s]chool children in public schools throughout the State of Minnesota, including the City of Minneapolis, the City of Saint Paul, and their adjacent suburban communities, are largely segregated by race and socioeconomic status.”

The suit claims the achievement gap is caused by racial and socioeconomic segregation.

A district court dismissed the suit against elected politicians, saying they are immune from such suits. It also dismissed the claim under the Minnesota Human Rights Act.

But state officials appealed the lower court’s decision not to dismiss the entire suit, claiming it’s not a question for the court system.

At issue is the “education clause” in the Minnesota Constitution.

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.

There’s nothing there that says an education has to be “adequate” and in its ruling today the Court of Appeals said “we are not aware of any precedential case expressly holding that Minnesota’s Education Clause imposes a qualitative educational requirement.”

“The clause does not state that the legislature must provide an education that meets a certain qualitative standard,” Judge Michelle Ann Larkin wrote on behalf of the three-judge panel. “Moreover, assuming without deciding that the Education Clause requires the provision of an education of a certain quality, the clause does not set forth the relevant qualitative standard.”

Judge Larkin said to define an “adequate education” would require the court to set education policy.

That makes the issue a political one, one that’s “entrusted to the legislature, and not the judicial branch,” she said.

Because resolution of respondents’ claims requires establishment of a qualitative educational standard, which is a task for the legislature and not the judiciary, the claims present a nonjusticiable political question. While we share the desire of respondents, and indeed of all Minnesotans, for an excellent system of public education, the establishment of qualitative standards necessary to achieve that laudable goal is entrusted to the elected representatives in our legislature and local branches of government.

Larkin noted those bringing suit did not make a traditional segregation claim, choosing instead to sue over a claim the state is required to provide an adequate education.

“If respondents’ claims merely required us to determine whether appellants have violated a defined constitutional mandate, we would have no difficulty concluding that this case presents a justiciable controversy,” she said.

[Update 2:50 p.m.] – Daniel Shulman, the attorney who brought the case, tells MPR News’ Solvejg Wastvedt that he’ll ask the Minnesota Supreme Court to review the case.