State’s shameful education gap under scrutiny

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Lawsuit blames segregated schools

Part one of a two-part story

Minnesota has some of the worst educational outcomes for students of color in the nation. A lawsuit in the Minnesota Supreme Court is aiming to desegregate Twin Cities metro schools to combat these disparities.

Cruz-Guzman v. State of Minnesota was brought forth in 2015, alleging the State of Minnesota has not lived up to its constitutional obligation to offer a uniform and adequate education to all students. Court documents chronicle a vast pattern of segregation between White suburban schools and metro schools with students of color and students receiving free or reduced lunch (eligibility based on income levels).

Alejandro Cruz-Guzman, a plaintiff in the case, sent his oldest children to a predominantly Hispanic charter school until third grade. Eventually he and his wife decided they wanted to send their kids into a more integrated environment.

“They were born in this country,” Cruz-Guzman said. “And if we want to be part of society, you know, they should be able to integrate with different communities, not just one community. You know, we don’t live in a Latin American country. We live in the U.S. where there’s different nationalities.”

His wife would make a 10-minute drive every day to bring the kids to the bus stop of their chosen school — a luxury he pointed out is not possible for all parents. When the superintendent changed the rules, forcing Cruz-Guzman’s kids to go to a segregated neighborhood school, he said he joined the case alongside his attorney, Dan Shulman.

The Cruz-Guzman case has taken a winding path to reach Minnesota’s highest court — and it’s not the first of its kind. Shulman led the Minnesota NAACP’s lawsuit in 1995 to integrate public schools in the Twin Cities metro.

That case’s settlement in 2000 led to The Choice is Yours program, which allowed families in Minneapolis Public Schools that qualified for free or reduced lunches to bus their children to outlying suburban school districts. But Shulman said this settlement was ineffective.

“The settlement of the first case did not result in meaningful desegregation… Things got much worse,” Shulman said. “They’re more segregated now in Minneapolis and St. Paul by race and by socioeconomic status than they were when I began the first case in 1995.”

Approximately $100 million is allocated by the Minnesota Legislature each year toward achievement and integration purposes, which aims to create integrated learning environments, diversify the teacher workforce, and improve graduation and educational attainment rates. About $14 million goes toward student transportation alone.

“There’s really no meaningful definition of how that money is to be used, and no effective monitoring of how districts use it,” Shulman said. “It’s basically not used effectively to produce either achievement or integration.”

The case against school inequity

School performance data may reveal disparities and segregation, but they do not always point to a root cause. The Cruz-Guzman case, launched in late 2015, alleges the State denied students of color the right to an adequate education. Schools within the two landmark cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul are performing significantly more poorly than the statewide average and their predominantly White suburban neighbors.

Source: Minnesota Department of Education

Edina has 26 percent students of color and eight percent receiving free or reduced lunch. Wayzata has 26 percent students of color and 12 percent receiving free or reduced lunch. 

But in Minneapolis and St. Paul, which have much more racially and economically diverse populations, these numbers are much higher. And the boundary decisions by Minneapolis and St. Paul school districts have amplified segregation within the districts, according to the court complaint.

This includes schools like Bethune Elementary near North Minneapolis, which has 97 percent students of color and 93 percent receiving free or reduced lunch; or schools like Daytons Bluff Elementary in St. Paul, which has 94 percent students of color and 92 percent receiving free or reduced lunch.

Al Fan, executive director of Minnesota Comeback, an educational advocacy nonprofit seeking to close the opportunity gap among students, said the blame does not fall on the students for not succeeding. 

“Kids of color, and kids of low-income family backgrounds, are not getting the same quality education as White middle-class kids. And the problem, we think, is in the schools themselves,” Fan said.

The court complaint alleges that segregation by race and socioeconomic status has resulted in low graduation rates for students of color in Minneapolis and St. Paul. The statewide graduation rate was 82 percent in 2017.

Source: Court documents

“The schools are supposed to be providing an education for every child in that school,” Fan said. “And what you’re seeing in the data is simply showing that’s not true… Everyone tends to blame kids for not succeeding, but in reality, we think the schools are responsible for not delivering the same quality education to every child.”

Next week: Many advocates say there is no sole solution to the disparities addressed in the Cruz-Guzman case.