In 1988, 52 school districts and ten parents brought suit claiming that unequal school funding created disparities in educational opportunity that violated the Minnesota Constitution. The trial court held that education is a fundamental right under the state constitution and that wealth-based disparities between districts created an “impermissible absence of uniformity” in the state’s schools. In 1993, the Supreme Court of Minnesota reversed the trial court in Skeen v. State, 505 N.W. 2d 299, despite affirming that education is a fundamental right. The Court’s reasoning relied heavily on the plaintiffs’ concession that the schools provided an adequate education “because the state’s portion of the funding is equally distributed–and admittedly provides the funding for an adequate education–we believe that the present system of education funding withstands constitutional scrutiny.”
In 1995, the Minneapolis NAACP sued the state, claiming that students in that city were denied a basic education, in violation of the state constitution’s education and equal protection clauses. In 2000, the parties settled with an agreement creating a new accountability system for the Minneapolis schools and expanding the access of low-income families to magnet and suburban schools.
Alejandro Cruz-Guzman v. State of Minnesota
In May 2017, the state’s Court of Appeals reversing the District Court dismissed a case filed by a group of Minneapolis parents in Hennepin District court (Alejandro Cruz-Guzman v. State of Minnesota). The case claimed that school children in public schools throughout the state of Minnesota, including the city of Minneapolis, the City of Saint Paul, and their adjacent suburban communities, are largely segregated by race and socioeconomic status, and that a “segregated education is per se an inadequate education under the Education Clause of the Minnesota State Constitution.”
The Court recognized that the State Supreme Court in Skeen v. State, 505 N.W.2d 299 (Minn. 1993) had indicated that the constitution’s education clause may be read to guarantee students an adequate education. It distinguished that precedent, however, by stating that the supreme court’s references to an “adequate” education, in that case, focused on funding issues and the allocation of educational resources, and did not extend to the adequacy claims related to school segregation raised by the present plaintiffs.
In July 2018, the Minnesota Supreme Court reversed that decision, holding that adequacy language in the state’s education clause does have a “qualitative” dimension that courts can properly interpret in order to assess whether students are receiving an adequate education (Cruz-Guzman v State). In a major opinion that has important implications for cases challenging funding inequities, racial segregation and inadequate civic education, the Minnesota Supreme Court held that:
The framers [of the state constitution] could not have intended for the Legislature to create a system of schools that was “general and uniform” and “thorough and efficient” but that produced a wholly inadequate education, … [As long ago as 1871], we recognized that the people of Minnesota have a right to “an education which will fit them to discharge intelligently their duties as citizens of the republic.” … An education that does not equip Minnesotans to discharge their duties as citizens intelligently cannot fulfill the Legislature’s duty to provide an adequate education under the Education Clause.¹
The Court also discussed at length why claims of violations of the Education Clause of the state constitution are justiciable, noting that “Deciding that appellants’ claims are not justiciable would effectively hold that the judiciary cannot rule on the Legislature’s noncompliance with a constitutional mandate, which would leave Education Clause claims without a remedy. Such a result is incompatible with the principle that where there is a right, there is a remedy.”The case will now go to trial where the parties will present evidence on that question.
Two of the members of the Court dissented, arguing among other things, that the issues are not justiciable and that prior adequacy cases in Minnesota and elsewhere interpreted constitutional educational provisions to apply only to finance issues and not to “adequacy” as broadly defined by the present plaintiffs.
To date, Connecticut’s Supreme Court is the only state high court that has held that patterns of school segregation violate the educational clause of the state constitution. See, Sheff v.O’Neill, 678 A.2d 1267 (1996). That ruling was based both on the education clause in the state constitution and a provision that specifically banned segregation. If it finds in plaintiffs’ favor, the Minnesota court would be the first in the country to uphold a desegregation claim based solely on a right to education provision in a state constitution.
In the spring of 2021, after extensive mediation, the parties reached agreement on a settlement to the case. The terms of the settlement are set forth in a bill that was introduced in the Minnesota legislature. The bill would create a metro-wide student busing program, establish four new magnet schools and order racially isolated charter and district schools to integrate. The settlement, which it is estimated will cost $63 million per year, was dependent on the legislature’s enactment of the bill. The parties agreed that if the Legislature did not pass the bill in its next session, the case would return to the Court. The legislature failed to do so, and, accordingly, in September, 2021, the plaintiffs returned to the Court, filing a motion for summary judgment. If the motion is denied, the case is scheduled to go to trial in 2022.
At the end of September, 2022, the Minnesota Court of Appeals interpreted the state supreme court’s prior ruling in this case to mean that only intentional school segregation but not de facto racial imbalance in the schools violates Art. XIII of the Minnesota constitution, upholding the district court’s decision to this effect. Plaintiffs have indicated that they will appeal this ruling to the Minnesota Supreme Court.
¹ Art XIII, § 1.of the Minnesota Constitution, adopted in 1857, provides: “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.”
The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) Report, “Public School Finance Programs of the United States and Canada,” describes the Minnesota school funding system in detail, as of the 1998-99 school year.
Last updated: October 2022