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Why charter school advocates have mixed feelings about the state Supreme Court’s integration decision

Charvez Russell, the executive director at Friendship Academy
MinnPost photo by Erin Hinrichs
Charvez Russell, the executive director at Friendship Academy: “The truth is that schools that are integrated on paper too often track white students and students of color into disparate opportunities and outcomes.”

On Wednesday, the Minnesota Supreme Court put a high-profile school integration lawsuit back in play by deciding that state courts can weigh in on whether the state has failed in its responsibility to adequately educate students.  

The plaintiffs in the lawsuit, Cruz-Guzman v. State of Minnesota, accuse the state of enabling racial segregation in the Twin Cities’ seven-county metro area by supporting open enrollment and the creation of racially segregated charter schools. That segregation is an issue, they claim, because the public schools are failing to adequately teach poor students and students of color.

The class-action lawsuit has been winding through the court system since November 2015, when seven Minneapolis and St. Paul families and a Minneapolis-based nonprofit organization filed the suit. 

In July 2016, a Hennepin County district judge ruled in favor of letting the case proceed. But in March 2017, the Minnesota Court of Appeals dismissed the case after ruling that defining a standard of quality of education was outside the court’s realm of authority. The plaintiffs then brought their case to the Supreme Court, which overturned that ruling with its 4-2 decision on Wednesday.

The case will now go back to the Hennepin County district court, where Dan Shulman, the lead attorney for the plaintiffs, says he’s hoping to get a trial date set within a year. 

If the plaintiffs prevail, state education leaders could be forced to grapple with a metrowide desegregation plan that could drastically alter the demographic makeup of many schools. 

Shulman says he has been working on putting together a desegregation plan proposal, but is withholding the details until the trial. At this point, he’s confident that some sort of desegregation plan will eventually move forward.

And that precedent, he says, will have implications far beyond Minnesota. “This opinion says, straight out, that a segregated education cannot be adequate,” Shulman said. “The implications of today’s decision are that if we prove the allegations that are in our complaint — and I expect to be able to prove them during the trial — we will establish the state has violated its constitutional duty and it will be required to remedy that. And it has implications not just here, but throughout the country. It’s a decision, I believe, people will be talking about decades from now.”

School-choice advocates raise concerns

The Supreme Court’s decision on the Cruz-Guzman case drew a mixed reaction from school-choice advocates, who were happy with Wednesday’s outcome but are critical of the merits of the case. 

Daniel Sellers
Daniel Sellers

“The Court’s decision is bittersweet,” Daniel Sellers, executive director of EdAllies, said in a press release. “The good news is that the Court has decided that it can play a role in determining whether the state is meeting its constitutional requirement to provide an adequate education to Minnesota children. But, the bad news is that the plaintiffs’ arguments in this particular case risk taking us in the wrong direction by undermining the choices of families of color, and schools designed to specifically serve their needs.”

Sellers is talking about schools like Friendship Academy of the Arts, a high-performing K-6 charter school located in Minneapolis that serves a student population that’s 96 percent African American and 85 percent low-income. In 2017, students there outperformed the state average in math, reading and science on the state standardized tests. Friendship Academy, along with Higher Ground Academy — all all-black charter located in St. Paul — both weighed in on the case before the Minnesota Supreme Court, siding with the state.

Charvez Russell, the executive director at Friendship Academy, said that the case is misguided in “focusing exclusively on the racial makeup of a school, without actually looking at what the students are actually doing in the school.”

“The truth is that schools that are integrated on paper too often track white students and students of color into disparate opportunities and outcomes,” he said at a press conference held outside of this school Wednesday. “The truth is an environment like Friendship Academy serves students of color much better, which is why parents choose us.”

He highlighted the school’s focus on academic rigor and cultural affirmation, along with its high level of family engagement, as some of the key draws for families of color.

Tiffini Forslund, lead plaintiff in the Forslund v. Minnesota case
MinnPost photo by Erin Hinrichs
Tiffini Forslund, lead plaintiff in the Forslund v. Minnesota case, speaking outside Friendship Academy on Wednesday.

Making sure the courts understand the “distinction between a segregated environment that is forced upon someone as a result of their race and their socio-economic status versus culturally affirming schools” as this case move forward will be key, says Nekima Levy-Pounds, a civil rights attorney who recently ran, unsuccessfully, to become mayor of Minneapolis.

“In the Supreme Court’s decision, they seem to be lumping in culturally affirming school environments with traditional public schools in urban environments. It’s wiping away parent choice and autonomy, in terms of knowing what is in the best interest of our kids — as far as a school learning environment — and what is not,” she said. “The courts need to hear from parents who have chosen culturally affirming environments, so that they see that parents are conscious in making these decisions and that our children are faring much better, in many respects.”

Reflecting on the consequences of Brown v. Board of Education, she noted that many black teachers lost their jobs and black children who were forcibly bused to school in predominantly white communities endured racism from their peers, teachers and classmates’ parents. “So that is terrifying for many African-American parents, to think about the government forcing us to send our children to environments that are unprepared for them, that do not want them there,” she said.

Comments (5)

  1. Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 07/26/2018 - 11:55 am.

    So, black-only schools, publicly funded, are a Good Thing if they are charter schools and parents choose to send their children to them. But black-only schools still in the “public school” category, publicly funded but without application forms and exclusions chosen by parents are a Bad Thing? Or, is segregation by race always a Good Thing now, defended with arguments about cultural sensitivities that can only be taught and experienced in a racially-segregated environment?

    Sorry. Charter school advocates want to continue to use public money to fund essentially private schools that are segregated by race. In the metro area there are white-only charter schools (public money funds them), Asian-only (sometimes by language group, i.e., Chinese schools) charter schools, as well as racially AND culturally segregated schools–East African-only charters, for example, for Somali and Eritrean immigrant children, complete with a panoply of expensive translators and special curricula that emphasize STEM.

    At what point do we admit that segregation is still segregation, and that’s not good for our society? I personally am not ready to agree that segregation by race is good for us. Even in elementary schools.

    At what point do we admit that using public education dollars to continue charter schools’ purposeful segregation by race and ethnic group is not justified, because the so-called Example of A Better Way charters were to provide seems apparently not translatable to the real public school system? What we have now, with all these segregated charter schools, is essentially a private-school system segregated by race and funded with tax dollars. And the remnant public schools go from bad to worse.

  2. Submitted by Joe Nathan on 07/27/2018 - 07:32 am.

    Thanks & what some families are seeking

    Thx to Ms. Hindricks for this column and Ms. Sullivan for sharing her concerns. A few thoughts:

    1. In this NY Times front page story from 2009, some immigrant parents shared the reasons they selected charters that served mostly students from their community. In many cases, they had tried district public schools. Their students were bullied, and they were not able to get this resolved. Values of disrespects for older people, and certain kinds of clothing, and other issues were promoted that they disagreed with. They wanted their children in an atmosphere where respect was promoted.

    They also did not see many adult role models for their children.
    So they selected charters.

    2. Second, there are virtually all white district public schools in the metro area. Orono High School is more than 90% white. Waconia High School in Waconia, and Rogers Elementary in Rogers are 92% White. Andover High School is 88% white. Even Lake Harriet Lower School in Minneapolis is 85% white. There are many more examples
    Is anyone demanding that wealthy white families should not be allowed to send their children to schools that are virtually all white?

    3. Personally, our 3 children attended racially and socio-economically diverse district public schools in St Paul, K-12. They had many valuable experiences.

    4. There are examples of district & chartered public schools learning from each other. Our Center, for example, helped district & charters in Minneapolis learn from each other and others to increase family involvement. We helped produce major increases in dual high school/college credit participation among 4 St. Paul district and 2 local chartered public schools.

  3. Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 07/27/2018 - 04:51 pm.

    To Joe’s points: Orono is almost all white in its population and it’s no surprise that the school district reflects that. The same applies to the other schools he mentions: white population in the district, white student population in their schools.

    What is disturbing is that in the Twin Cities there also are all-white charter schools using public tax dollars to fund their deliberately segregated institutions. I protest that use of my tax dollars, just as I do the use of my tax dollars for segregating black students in charters, or East African students in charters. If bullying goes on: address the bullying! (And: assimilate into American culture, a word people are too afraid to use these days?)

    The dinky “transfers of innovations” that Joe mentions, from charters to traditional public schools, simply do not amount to enough to justify the gigantic expense of public dollars funding charter private schools (that’s what they are) today in Minneapolis and the metro.

  4. Submitted by Joe Nathan on 07/28/2018 - 10:57 am.

    Shouldn’t American Indian & People of color have options too

    Ms. Sullivan, I agree that Orono is almost all white. It’s also almost all affluent – less than 10% of its students receive free and reduced lunches.

    You don’t have to go to Orono, though – check out the elementary schools serving wealthy Linden Hills in Mpls? More than 80% white, less than 10% free and reduced lunch.

    Are you suggesting that it’s ok for wealthy white people to be allowed to select various public schools, but it’s not ok for American Indian and people of color?

    Do you regard Orono as deliberately segregated? Should it be closed? Do you regard Lake Harriet Lower school in Mpls (85% white, 5.6 free/reduced) lunch as an option that should be closed?

    Have you and other charter critics talked, for example with American Indian families who actively selected Bdote Charter after experiencing frustration and failure in district schools? Same question for families of color attending, for example, Friendship Academy in Mpls – which has been chosen as a nationally outstanding ‘Blue Ribbon School” based on nomination of the Mn Dept of Education?

    Unquestionably there are great district schools, and as mentioned we should be learning from the most effective, whether district or charter.

    But I return to this key question – is it ok for some affluent whites to choose to send their youngsters to mostly white public schools, but not ok for low and moderate income families of color to choose among various options including schools like Friendship Academy and Bdote?

  5. Submitted by joe smith on 07/31/2018 - 07:25 am.

    School vouchers.

    Let each parent control where their child is educated with a school voucher. Then it won’t matter what color the child is and hopefully it will spur on competition so the failing public schools will make much needed changes. Pretty simple (unless you think public schools are succeeding) children need this change.

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