Suit Seeks Minn. Backing of Desegregation Plan
The Minneapolis chapter of the NAACP has sued the state of Minnesota, charging that it has failed to provide the city's students with the same educational opportunities as children in nearby suburbs.
The organization is trying to force the state to back a metrowide school-desegregation plan, said John Shulman, a lawyer for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. A key element of the lawsuit is the group's demand for more affordable housing in the suburbs.
The NAACP first sued the state in federal court in 1971 over segregation in the city's schools. That litigation resulted in widespread mandatory busing in the area.
The NAACP's leaders, however, say that over time the state has backed away from policies aimed at reducing racial and economic isolation in the schools.
The lawsuit filed last month names a number of state officials, including Gov. Arne Carlson and the president of the state school board.
The court challenge comes at a tumultuous time for education in the state.
Georgina Stephens, the state board president, resigned last month over what she charged was the board's racial bias and inability to make fair revisions to the state's 1973 desegregation rule. The board has been trying in recent years to update that policy.
Ms. Stephens has also said a colleague on the board told her she should not hold its top post because she was not white.
The state's education department is also undergoing a major transition. Gov. Carlson this year won legislative approval of his plan to abolish the agency and replace it with a department of children, families, and learning. That switch is set to begin this month, and the governor has named a commissioner, Bruce Johnson, to head the new department.
Officials in the governor's office would not comment on the lawsuit last week. Mr. Carlson, however, told local reporters he would use any resources necessary to defend the state against it. In addition to the NAACP, four white and two black students are plaintiffs in the case.
The NAACP's class action resembles a recent school-desegregation lawsuit in Connecticut.
Earlier this year, a superior court judge there rejected, in Sheff v. O'Neill, an argument similar to that of the Minneapolis NAACP. The Hartford students named as plaintiffs in the Connecticut case claimed the state did not provide the city's children with an adequate education compared to their peers in the wealthier suburbs.
The judge said the plaintiffs failed to show that the state had in any way encouraged racial isolation in those schools. The case is now on appeal. (See Education Week, April 19, 1995.)
In Minneapolis, the NAACP's case focuses on two clauses of the state constitution that establish the right to an adequate education and the right to equal protection under the law. The suit claims the state has an obligation to provide the city's students with adequate schooling--even if it did not cause or contribute to segregation in the area.
Under the state's 1973 desegregation rule, a school's minority enrollment must be within 15 percent of the district's overall minority enrollment for the grades it serves. In Minneapolis, about 60 percent of students are members of minority groups.
But the plaintiffs, who filed the suit in Hennepin County District Court, said state officials--and schools--have not held up their end of the deal.
"The state has retreated on a lot of its commitments to desegregation," said Mr. Shulman, the lawyer for the NAACP. "Many schools have fallen out of compliance with the rules, but the state has done nothing to enforce them," he said.
'Not About Busing'
The NAACP's leaders said they are most concerned with improving conditions in the schools.
"This is not about busing," said Mr. Shulman. Although changes in transportation may be part of the solution, NAACP leaders believe children should not be bused to schools further away than the ones they now attend, he added.
The NAACP also does not oppose allowing students to attend schools in their neighborhoods, a concept that Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton of Minneapolis has heartily endorsed.
"It is the arbitrary, artificial barriers created by school districts that have made it more difficult for neighborhood schools to be desegregated schools," Mr. Shulman said. The 44,000-student Minneapolis district has an open-enrollment policy, but critics say it has been poorly administered.
But the organization identified improvements in housing for low-income people as perhaps the most potent way to break up pockets of poverty and race in communities and schools.
Finally, Mr. Shulman said, the most extreme solution to school segregation would be a single district for the entire metro area.
"We're not willing to concede the sanctity of any of these" remedies, he added, saying that Minneapolis NAACP President Bill Davis and others are working with state and national experts to seek other possible solutions.
Some local school officials praised the NAACP. Superintendent Peter Hutchinson of Minneapolis lauded the group for focusing on student achievement above all else, said Ginny Craig, a district spokeswoman.
But the organization's lawyers admit they may have a long road ahead. The lawsuit could languish in state courts for a couple of years--unless Gov. Carlson makes school desegregation a priority, Mr. Shulman said.