Cruz-Guzman and the Rise of Charter Schools

Cruz-Guzman and the Rise of Charter Schools: How Will the Minnesota Supreme Court Respond to the Resegregation of Schools in the Twin Cities?

By: Charles W. Niemann, Volume 102 Staff Member

A recent analysis by the Associated Press showed that charter schools are playing a significant role in the resegregation of American schools.[1] Charter schools are privately run and publicly funded, and their enrollment has tripled over the last decade to reach 2.7 million students nationwide.[2] Students enrolled in charter schools are more likely to receive their education in a highly segregated environment, as 17 percent of charters are 99 percent minority compared with 4 percent of traditional public schools.[3] The overall resegregation of schools has been attributed to a number of factors, including “charters and school choice, the lapse of court-ordered desegregation plans in many cities, and housing and economic trends.”[4] Highly segregated schools tend to have fewer resources, fewer experienced teachers, and poorer student performance than schools that are more racially balanced.[5] As charter schools become more prevalent, courts and policymakers will need to grapple with the racially-isolating impact these schools can have on students in their communities.[6]

This Post will not weigh the merits of charter schools relative to traditional public schools, but instead seeks to provide context for the Minnesota Supreme Court’s impending consideration of the Cruz-Guzman case.[7] Schools in Minneapolis and Saint Paul are currently more segregated than they have been in a generation, with more than half of their schools composed of 80 percent minority students or more.[8] The plaintiffs in Cruz-Guzman are attempting to force the reconfiguration of schools in the Twin Cities,[9] arguing that a segregated education is “inadequate” and therefore violates students’ fundamental rights under the Minnesota State Constitution.[10] The Minnesota Court of Appeals held that claims “based on a purported right to an education of a certain quality” are non-justiciable political questions after applying the familiar Baker v. Carr factors.[11]After providing a brief history of adequacy challenges under state and federal constitutions, this Post will argue that the Appeals Court erred in concluding that adequacy challenges under the Minnesota Education Clause are not justiciable.

I. A BRIEF HISTORY OF CONSTITUTIONAL CHALLENGES TO EDUCATION AT THE STATE LEVEL

In Brown v. Board, the U.S. Supreme Court held that segregation in public schools violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, concluding that “[s]eparate educational facilities are inherently unequal.”[12] Because of the strong language contained in the opinion,[13] Brown inspired a wave of equal protection challenges at the federal level.[14] However, school reformers redirected their efforts toward state courts after the San Antonio School District v. Rodriguez decision,[15] where the Supreme Court held that education is not a fundamental right under the United States Constitution.[16] The majority in Rodriguez reasoned that “fundamental” status is limited to rights specifically enumerated in the Constitution, and that education should be evaluated under the Court’s more deferential “rational relation” test.[17]

The constitutions of all 50 states contain a provision providing for free public education, and reformers used the rationale from Rodriguez to argue that education is a “fundamental right” because of this specific enumeration.[18] This wave of litigation focused on inequality in school finance schemes and was largely unsuccessful.[19] Courts may have been wary of striking down financing systems because of the difficulties other states had after financing challenges succeeded.[20] The courts and legislatures in these states had trouble determining what had to be equalized and how they should go about achieving equality, and many plans faced significant backlash from communities intent on retaining local control of education.[21]

As the number of equality-based challenges died down, reformers were reenergized after the Kentucky Supreme Court struck down the entire state education system because of its failure to provide an equal opportunity to obtain an adequate education.[22] The Court derived this requirement from constitutional language regarding “efficient” schools.[23] At least a dozen other state courts followed Kentucky’s lead during the 1990s and interpreted similar constitutional language to provide a cause of action for students who are not provided with an adequate education.[24] Commentators have recognized several advantages to “adequacy based” theories, including the fact that they afford courts the opportunity to “provide relief without requiring substantial interventions to equalize education programs or to interfere with local control mechanisms.”[25] Minnesota recognized a right to an adequate education during this wave of litigation,[26] and the State Supreme Court has the opportunity to radically reshape this right in Cruz-Guzman.

II. THE MINNESOTA SUPREME COURT SHOULD REAFFIRM THE RIGHT TO RECEIVE AN ADEQUATE EDUCATION UNDER THE STATE CONSTITUTION

The Minnesota State Constitution imposes a duty on the legislature to establish a “general and uniform” system of public schools.[27] The outcome of Cruz-Guzman will be largely dependent upon the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the Skeen case, which upheld Minnesota’s funding scheme for public schools that was in place at the time.[28] The majority in Skeen distinguished the Minnesota funding scheme from those struck down by courts in other states by noting “that plaintiff districts are receiving an adequate level of basic education,” a fact which the plaintiffs conceded.[29] Nonetheless, the Court stated unambiguously that “education is a fundamental right under the state constitution” and that “this court must employ strict scrutiny” when evaluating challenges to this fundamental right.[30]The Court highlighted a distinction made by the framers of the Minnesota Constitution between the establishment of a “general and uniform” system of schools and the financing of such a system, where challenges need only be evaluated under rational basis scrutiny.[31]

Given this language from Skeen, it is somewhat surprising that the Court of Appeals in Cruz-Guzman stated that it was “not aware of any precedential case” holding that the Education Clause provides a right to an adequate education.[32] The Court attempted to distinguish Skeen on the grounds that it involved a challenge to the school finance system rather than educational quality, and that it “never involved a challenge to the adequacy of education in Minnesota.”[33] While the plaintiffs in Skeen certainly did concede that they had received an adequate education, the plaintiffs in Cruz-Guzman have repeatedly alleged that a segregated education is inherently unequal.[34] It is also unclear why the Court placed such a significant emphasis on the fact that Skeen was an education finance challenge. Whether the source of a child’s allegedly inadequate education is a system of financing, racial segregation, or outdated facilities should be immaterial to a court’s inquiry under the Minnesota Education Clause.[35] Whatever the source of the alleged inadequacy, Minnesota courts should apply strict scrutiny to determine whether the legislature has satisfied its mandate of establishing a general and uniform system of schools.[36]

Also troubling was the Cruz-Guzman Court’s willingness to grant the legislature such a high degree of deference to comply with this mandate. In its refusal to exercise jurisdiction, the Court stated that evaluating the plaintiffs’ adequacy claims would “inevitably require us to define the relevant qualitative standard.”[37] While the plaintiffs have provided objective data such as test scores to support their allegations of inadequacy,[38] they have not alleged “a right to an education of an arbitrary degree of excellence.”[39] The Court made its wariness of the latter type of claim known in its opinion,[40] and such a claim would appropriately be characterized as a non-justiciable political question better suited for policymakers.

However, the plaintiffs in Cruz-Guzman have argued that a segregated education is inadequate per se, and that this specific characteristic of their education has resulted in an injury sufficient to support standing.[41] By focusing its analysis on this issue alone, the Minnesota Supreme Court can exercise proper judicial restraint by deferring to legislative judgments on how a desegregated and thus adequate system of education should be structured (i.e., the Court could deem a segregated education to be inherently “inadequate”). The Court can therefore reach the issue of adequacy by employing the standards developed by the U.S. Supreme Court to determine when schools are unlawfully segregated, and therefore unequal.[42]

Courts ought to defer to legislative judgments on policy matters when they are able to do so, but such deference is inappropriate when fundamental rights are implicated. The Skeen Court clearly stated that the right to an adequate education is a fundamental one, and simply trusting the political branches to protect this right would be problematic. This is especially true given our nation’s history of racial discrimination in school systems. The Minnesota Supreme Court should therefore decide whether a segregated education is in fact inadequate under the state constitution, regardless of the challenges that would then arise when implementing remedial action. If it fails to do so the Court will send an implicit signal to policymakers that school segregation need not be addressed, even as the expansion of charters and school choice programs threaten to exacerbate existing racial imbalances.

  1. See US Charter Schools Put Growing Numbers in Racial Isolation, Associated Press (Dec. 27, 2017), https://www.apnews.com/e9c25534dfd44851a5e56bd57454b4f5.
  2. Id.
  3. Id.
  4. Id.
  5. See id.
  6. See, e.g., U.S. Department of Education Awards $253 Million in Grants to Expand Charter Schools, U.S. Dept. Educ. (Sept. 28, 2017), https://www.ed.gov/news/press-releases/us-department-education-awards-253-million-grants-expand-charter-schools.
  7. Cruz-Guzman v. State, 892 N.W.2d 533 (Minn. App. 2017) (review granted Apr. 26, 2017).
  8. See Alejandra Matos et al., Urban School Districts Are Among Least Integrated, Star Tribune (Nov. 2, 2015), http://www.startribune.com/urban-school-districts-are-among-least-integrated/339132801/.
  9. Id.
  10. Cruz-Guzman, 892 N.W.2d at 535; Minn. Const. art. XIII, § 1 (“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.”).
  11. Cruz-Guzman, 892 N.W.2d at 538 (quoting Baker v. Carr, 369 U.S. 186 (1962)).
  12. Brown v. Board of Educ., 347 U.S. 483 (1954).
  13. Id. at 493 (“[The] opportunity [to obtain a public education], where the state has undertaken to provide it, is a right which must be made available to all on equal terms.”).
  14. Kelly Thompson Cochran, Beyond School Financing: Defining the Constitutional Right to an Adequate Education, 78 N.C. L. Rev. 399, 406 n.32 (2000).
  15. Id. at 408.
  16. 411 U.S. 1, 18 (1973).
  17. Id. at 33–35, 37–39; Rational basis review is the most lenient form of judicial review and is typically employed when no fundamental rights or suspect classifications are at issue. Rational Basis, Legal Info. Inst., https://www.law.cornell.edu/wex/rational_basis (last visited Feb. 5, 2018).
  18. Cochran, supra note 14, at 408.
  19. Id. at 408–09.
  20. Id. at 409–10.
  21. Id.
  22. Id. at 413; Rose v. Council for Better Educ., Inc., 790 S.W.2d 186 (Ky. 1989).
  23. Rose, 790 S.W.2d at 208, 211.
  24. Cochran, supra note 14, at 415.
  25. Id. at 414.
  26. Skeen v. State, 505 N.W.2d 299 (Minn. 1993).
  27. Minn. Const. art. XIII, § 1.
  28. Skeen v. State, 505 N.W.2d at 312.
  29. Id. at 311. The Court used the term “adequate” interchangeably with “general and uniform” throughout the case. See, e.g., id. at 311–12 (“[P]laintiffs here are unable to establish that the basic system is inadequate or that the “general and uniform” requirement somehow implies full equalization of local referendum levies.”).
  30. Id. at 315.
  31. Id.
  32. Cruz-Guzman v. State, 892 N.W. 2d 533, 538 (Minn. App. 2017).
  33. Id. at 540–41.
  34. Combined Response and Reply Brief of Plaintiffs-Petitioners-Cross Respondents at 4, Cruz-Guzman v. State, 892 N.W. 2d 533 (Minn. App. 2017) (No. A16-1265).
  35. Id. at 11–12.
  36. See Skeen, 505 N.W.2d at 313, 315.
  37. Cruz-Guzman, 892 N.W. 2d at 540.
  38. Id. at 535.
  39. Brief of Amici Curiae Concerned Law Professors at 16 n.6, Cruz-Guzman v. State, 892 N.W. 2d 533 (Minn. App. 2017) (No. A16-1265).
  40. See Cruz-Guzman, 892 N.W. 2d at 539 (“Such a determination rests in educational policy and is entrusted to the legislature, and not the judicial branch.”).
  41. See Brief of Amici Curiae Concerned Law Professors at 17.
  42. See, e.g., Keyes v. Sch. Dist. No. 1, 413 U.S. 189 (1973); Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Bd. of Educ., 401 U.S. 1 (1971).