School bus

Mediation is ongoing among parties in a lawsuit filed against the state of Minnesota that claims a 1999 non-segregation law exempting charter schools has established and created numerous “hyper-segregated schools” in Minneapolis and St. Paul in which the majority of students are black and from poor families.

The plaintiffs, defendants, and three minority charter schools recently finished meeting with two mediators during six days of court-mandated sessions.

Among those making presentations included the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, the Minnesota Association of Charter Schools, a panel of authorizers and charter school supporters, the chairs of the House Education Finance and the Senate Education Committees, St. Paul and Minneapolis school district representatives, the Minnesota Department of Education (MDE) and other state agencies.

The lawsuit, Cruz-Guzman v Minnesota, alleges the MDE “and all state actors, have violated the Equal Protection, Due Process, and Education clauses of the Minnesota Constitution by their actions leading to the current racial imbalance and academic-outcome imbalance in the Minneapolis and St. Paul Public School Districts.”

Segregation in the Minneapolis and St. Paul Public Schools has historically been divided by racial and socioeconomic demographics, the lawsuit alleges, “such that plaintiffs and other school-age children attend schools the enrollment of which is disproportionately comprised of students of color and students living in poverty,” compared to neighboring and surrounding schools and districts that are predominantly white and not poor.

“As a matter of both law and fact, such schools are not equal to neighboring and surrounding whiter and more affluent suburban schools,” the lawsuit states.

University of Minnesota Law School professor Myron Orfield, who is not a party to the lawsuit, advocates that students should be bused to different neighborhoods in order to integrate with culturally and racially different students to help improve the academic outcomes of students of color.

“While legally mandated segregation is forbidden, charters have found [an] effective workaround, one that skirts as close as possible to the enforced separation of the Jim Crow era,” Orfield wrote in 2015 before the lawsuit was filed. “A large number of charters are ‘culturally focused’ and overwhelmingly composed of a single racial group, ensuring that students from any other group will remain isolated.”

Charter school supporters and parents counter that such a position is inherently racist because it suggests integration is the only way to remedy the achievement gap.

Higher Ground Academy, a St. Paul charter school with nearly all black students and a waiting list of 280, filed to intervene in the lawsuit along with three parents and two other charter schools. More than 90 percent of the students at these schools identify as “Black, not Hispanic.”

The academy has been listed among the best in the nation several times by U.S. News & World Report’s Best High Schools.

When compared to the rest of the state and St. Paul and Minneapolis school districts, Higher Ground Academy’s education outcomes exceed them in most categories, according to state data.

In 2018, its 11th grade’s math proficiency score was greater than the state’s and more than double that of those reported by St. Paul and Minneapolis. The Academy reported 55 percent proficiency compared to the state’s 48.6 percent, St. Paul’s 26 percent, and Minneapolis’ 25 percent.

Its 10th grade’s reading proficiency of 51 percent was on par with the state’s, above St. Paul’s 40 percent and Minneapolis’ 36 percent.

At 93 percent, its 2018 high school graduation rate was well above the state average of 83 percent, St. Paul’s rate of 74 percent, and Minneapolis’ rate of 69 percent.

Those enrolling in higher education within 16 months of graduation was 100 percent, compared to 74 percent (statewide), 67 percent (St. Paul), and 71 percent (Minneapolis).

“High-performing charter schools that place special emphasis on the needs of racial minorities have been most successful in shrinking that gap,” Katherine Kersten, senior policy fellow at Center of the American Experiment, told The Center Square. “The Cruz-Guzman lawsuit attacks the ability of these charter schools to perform their critical mission.”

The 1999 desegregation rule obligates school districts to gather racial identification data on their students, prepare annual reports using the data, and make findings as to whether any district is segregated. The rule also mandates that segregated districts be desegregated, and the state Commissioner of Education must require measures “to help integrate the racially identifiable school.”

Segregation is defined in the rules as “the intentional act or acts by a school district that has the discriminatory purpose of causing a student to attend or not attend particular programs or schools within the district on the basis of the student’s race and that causes a concentration of protected students at a particular school.”

Charter schools are exempt from the requirement.

The goal of the lawsuit is to eliminate the exemption, the plaintiffs’ attorney, Daniel Schuelman, told The Center Square.

Several additional mediation sessions are scheduled to occur over the next two months.