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Students packed the Richfield High School auditorium Tuesday morning—but it wasn’t a typical school assembly they were awaiting.
An announcement came over the loudspeaker: “All students planning to attend the Supreme Court case must already be in their places in the auditorium.”
The assembly was part of the Minnesota Supreme Court’s Traveling Oral Arguments program, which brings real Supreme Court hearings to Minnesota schools several times a year.
“That’s Keith Ellison!” one student whispered as the state attorney general walked on stage.
Toddrick Barnette, the chief judge of Hennepin County, served as the event’s emcee. He took his place on the stage. “This is a very special opportunity for you to view firsthand the highest court of the judicial branch of the state of Minnesota,” he told students.
Barnette started with a social studies refresher about the three branches of government. He then gave an overview of what has been a long and complicated case history: A group of parents of color filed the case in 2015 on behalf of children in Minneapolis and St. Paul public schools. They alleged that racial and socioeconomic segregation in the schools resulted in an inadequate education, and claimed the state was responsible.
Three charter schools in Minneapolis and St. Paul, as well as parents representing children in those schools, joined the case as defendants. Those schools, which serve predominantly children of color, worry that the case could ultimately force them to drastically change or close their schools.
On Tuesday, the court considered one small aspect of the larger case. Is a racially imbalanced school system inherently a violation of the state Constitution’s education clause? Is that system unconstitutional only if it is producing poor outcomes? Or does the education clause require evidence of intentional segregation to demonstrate a violation?
In September, the Minnesota Court of Appeals ruled that racially isolated schools—that is, schools that serve disproportionately children of color or white children—do not inherently violate the education clause without evidence of intentional, de jure segregation.
The parents who originally sued appealed that decision to the Minnesota Supreme Court, which heard the case Tuesday. The high court will determine the standard for when racially isolated schools may constitute a violation of the education clause.
After the Supreme Court reaches a decision, the case will go to trial at Hennepin County District Court. The plaintiffs will have to prove their case based on the standard the Supreme Court sets. If they prove that the Legislature has failed to provide an adequate education, the decision could cause sweeping changes to education in Minnesota.
“All rise!” commanded a bailiff on stage. The audience stood, and student chatter faded to silence. The seven robed justices entered from stage right, and took their seats at a card table covered with a Richfield High School banner.
Richard Landon, an attorney representing the parents, presented his argument first.
“The issue before the court today is whether, and under what circumstances, de facto segregation can violate the education clause of the Minnesota Constitution,” Landon said.
Landon said that his clients believed that evidence of de facto segregation in a school or district was by itself sufficient to show a violation.
However, he said, other theories would also support his clients’ claim. The court could also rule that evidence of de facto segregation combined with evidence of an inadequate education amounts to a violation. And the court could require plaintiffs to prove that an inadequate education was caused in part by segregation to demonstrate a violation.
The justices peppered Landon with questions about what this theory of segregation and educational adequacy would mean in practice.
“Are you saying that as a matter of law, a school that serves predominantly, or even entirely, students of color is inherently inadequate, without regard to school performance?” asked Justice Margaret Chutich. Does that send a “harmful message that one group is intrinsically better than the other?”
“We are not alleging that race is a proxy for educational adequacy,” Landon said. However, he said, “permitting racial isolation” is contrary to the education clause.
The Minnesota Constitution’s education clause
The Minnesota Constitution states that the Legislature must create a school system that is general, uniform, thorough, and efficient. What do those words actually mean in practice? That’s the question at the heart of this seven-year-old court case.
Section 1. Uniform system of public schools. 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.
Justice Natalie Hudson asked whether the court should distinguish between different kinds of segregation. The charter schools that joined the case argue that their schools represent something fundamentally different from the state-mandated segregation outlawed in the landmark 1954 U.S. Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education, she said.
“Charter schools are made up of children whose parents have chosen that segregation, if you will, who have chosen to put their children there because they think their children will receive a better education, a culturally affirming education,” she said. “My question to you is, should we be separating that out in some way?”
Families in Minneapolis and St. Paul public schools did not choose to attend “failing schools,” Landon said. The state is still responsible for remedying that problem, even if some parents choose to escape that system, he said.
Justice Paul Thissen brought the conversation back to the school auditorium.
“Richfield High School is about 75 percent students of color,” he said. “Would that make Richfield close to unconstitutional?” The district has no other high school, he pointed out. Where should students go?
Landon said questions about how to remedy the problem should be left to the district court.
Chutich suggested requiring evidence of causation. “What do you think about requiring the class to show that segregation is a substantial factor in bringing about an inadequate education?” she asked Landon.
“We certainly think that that is a reasonable conclusion the court could make, even though we don’t think it’s necessary,” Landon said.
‘There’s no precedent supporting that’
Liz Kramer, the Minnesota solicitor general, presented arguments for the state. She urged the high court to focus on the narrow legal issue before it. Typically, she said, when people have concerns about unequal treatment in Minnesota, they bring a claim under the equal protection clause. But that was not the legal question at issue in this appeal.
“Plaintiffs seem to be asking this court to have the education clause do the work of the equal protection clause,” she said. “There’s no precedent supporting that.”
Chutich asked Kramer the same question she had posed to Landon, about a test showing that segregation was a substantial factor in an inadequate education.
“I think they need to start by showing that there is an inadequate education, using qualitative measures,” Kramer said. “And it doesn’t really matter, under our education clause, whether that’s the result of segregation or other things.”
Hudson questioned why the plaintiffs should have to prove that segregation leads to an inadequate education.
“It’s almost as if we don’t want to see what we see or know what we know,” she said. “There have been hundreds of studies done about the ill effects of segregation.”
She again referenced Brown v. Board of Education.
“Brown is very clear in talking about [how] the impact of segregation is greater when it is sanctioned by the state,” she said. “But segregation itself is a problem. It’s because we don’t have proximity with one another. We don’t get to know one another. We don’t get to become citizens of the world when we’re in our own silos. And that in and of itself is a problem in our society and continues to be a problem in our society. So why isn’t that enough?”
“There’s just no constitutional hook for it,” Kramer replied. Because there is no relevant language in the education clause, she said, the Supreme Court would be crafting a policy matter best left for the Legislature. The equal protection clause might be a better fit, she added.
Jack Perry, representing the intervening charter schools, circled back to Thissen’s question about Richfield High School.
Under the test that the plaintiffs have proposed, he said, “there’s no question” that Richfield High School would be unconstitutional. So would the charter schools he represents, he said, including Friendship Academy of the Arts and Higher Ground Academy.
“We’re all unconstitutional,” he said. “And that is despite the fact that two of our schools, Friendship and Higher Ground, have been nationally acclaimed for beating the odds, year after year after year. They don’t fit the expectation and the presupposition of this case.”
Hudson said that from data she has seen, high-performing charter schools appear to be the exception rather than the rule. And not all parents can send their children to charter schools; many send their kids to traditional public schools.
“Are they supposed to be satisfied then with the deplorable conditions,” she asked, “just because some other parents have chosen this route?”
Thissen, like Chutich, expressed interest in a causal relationship between segregation and inadequate education.
“It suggests that it’s not segregation by itself, but the fact that segregation leads to poor test scores,” Thissen said. “So that seems like there actually has to be some kind of causal connection to adequacy. Or is it that every segregated school leads to these poor test scores, and so every segregated school is inadequate? That doesn’t seem to be factually correct.”
Chief Justice Lorie Skjerven Gildea concluded the proceedings, promising an opinion in “due course.” She later told reporters that likely means in four to five months.
‘My question is for Ms. Lady in Pink’
As the case concluded, students in the audience discussed their thoughts. Some found it hard to sit still that long. Some complained about being bored. At least one woke up from a nap.
“They had some good points, though,” one student conceded.
“Oh yeah, both sides had great points,” a friend agreed.
“I really liked how they talked about Richfield,” the first student said.
The justices changed out of their robes and came out on stage to take questions from students—but not about the case. That wouldn’t be fair to the people involved in it, Barnette explained.
Fourteen-year-old Niya Briggs kicked off the question-and-answer period. “My main question is, how do you get into law?” she said. “Because a person like me, I’d like to get into law myself. My question is for Ms. Lady in Pink—gorgeous, by the way,” she said to Hudson.
First, finish high school, Hudson said. Then pursue courses that will help you with critical, analytical thinking and speaking. She recommended a liberal arts education.
Some students posed detailed questions about the law. What does “adequate” mean in the context of this case? asked Samantha Krueger. The justices declined to answer, saying it was too close to the case they had just heard.
And some asked funny questions: Does Kanye West have a chance of becoming president of the United States? (The justices declined to comment.) What was the “most outlandish” case they’d ever seen? (Gildea said she had once seen a five-day jury trial about a magnolia tree. The tree survived, she added.)
‘An opportunity to keep us grounded’
In interviews after the hearing, Thissen described the opportunity to hear cases at schools as “the most fun arguments of the year.”
Chutich said she had spoken with students after previous hearings who had not considered law, but planned to look into it after watching the arguments. “That’s gratifying,” she said.
“I love the interaction with students, the back-and-forth,” Hudson said. “It’s an opportunity for students to see what their court does. But it’s also an opportunity to keep us grounded, and to see what the younger generation is thinking about.”
In the auditorium, aspiring lawyer Niya Briggs reflected on the arguments. She found the plaintiffs’ argument to be too circular; she preferred the argument made by the state and charter schools.
Niya explained that she is Native American and African American, and hopes to become a divorce lawyer. Niya had already spoken with Justice Anne McKeig, who is Native American, before the arguments, so directed her question to Hudson, “because she’s the only other Black person up there.”
Lately, Niya has been working to get her grades up every day at school. She found it helpful to hear a list of steps from Hudson on how to pursue a legal career, she said.
Niya’s friend Nevaeh Coffman, a 17-year-old junior, also found Perry’s argument more convincing than Landon’s. She appreciated getting to see the Supreme Court justices in person.
“I was really intimidated, but after speaking to them, I realize they’re also humans,” she said. “They also have their morals and their opinions, and I really appreciate them sharing it. And they’re really welcoming too.”