Now comes the hard part: next steps with the charter integration lawsuit

April 1, 2016 • Curtis Johnson

In the aftermath of the knockdown the Administrative Law Judge gave to the Minnesota Department of Education last week over its proposed rule change that would have swept charter schools into the regulations on desegregation, it would be easy for the chartered sector to breathe a long sigh of relief. And consider the matter closed.

That would be wrong.

It’s important to remember there are two fully distinct challenges to charter schools under way; the second is the Shulman desegregation lawsuit filed against the State of Minnesota.

According to Jack Perry, a Briggs & Morgan attorney who’s heading up the legal intervention in the Shulman case, what’s coming will seem more “like a war.” The attorneys who have brought suit seem so far astounded, perhaps even offended, that there is an organized intervention. So far, no fewer than four sanctions have been filed challenging the intervention.

The lawsuit assumes that what it calls “segregation” is constitutionally wrong, morally indefensible, and more important than anything else about where students get their schooling. The suit assumes that academic outcomes are inferior in schools where there are concentrations of students of color. The facts do not uniformly support this view, but the plaintiff attorneys seem undeterred by facts. They plead for a total reorganization of districts in the metropolitan area and adoption of guidelines for mandatory racial enrollment balancing.

Amid all the elevated discussion about race, it would be easy to ignore the obvious underlying aim here: to degrade the standing of charter schools. Bill Wilson’s Higher Ground Academy, almost entirely attended by East African immigrants, would be right in the bullseye. Wilson, a black former member of the St. Paul City Council and former Human Rights Commissioner for St. Paul, takes umbrage at the use of the term “segregation.” He recalls experiencing “real segregation growing up in Indiana.” Wilson contends that when parents choose a school for their kids: “That is not segregation—that’s choice.” He prefers using different terms, such as “culturally responsive” or “culturally empowered” schools.

Curiously, the “class” of plaintiffs registered by attorneys bringing suit is all the school-going population, which of course includes those whose parents have chosen a charter school. The defendant is the State of Minnesota, which so far has dodged any obligation to defend these children and the choices made by their parents.

At its core this case contests whether the current fundamental right of parents to choose schools in the Minnesota system, as defined in statute, can be erased by a mathematical finding of racial imbalance.

The next chapter of this controversy plays out in a Hennepin County Courtroom on April 14.