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Bench & Bar of Minnesota is the official publication of the Minnesota State Bar Association.

Minnesota’s Public School System Goes on Trial

Cruz-Guzman presses the question of what constitutes an adequate public education

The achievement gap in America’s schools is one of our nation’s most persistent and pernicious problems. Educators, administrators, researchers, legislators, and courts ceaselessly debate why the gap exists and how to close it. Yet a universal solution—one that is educationally, politically, and economically feasible on a statewide or even district-wide scale—remains elusive. Lawsuits filed on behalf of at-risk students across the country routinely ask “are our schools good enough?” And that very question is now before the Minnesota courts in Cruz-Guzman v. State of Minnesota.1

Cruz-Guzman asserts that the Minneapolis and St. Paul school districts are illegally segregated along racial and economic lines. The lawsuit alleges that poor and/or minority students attend “separate and unequal” schools that do not provide the same educational opportunities as more affluent suburban districts. Plaintiffs contend state policies concentrate minority and/or low-income students in segregated, and in some cases hyper-segregated, schools. They demand an end to these policies and an adequate, desegregated school system. 

This article discusses the CruzGuzman case, the broader national backdrop against which it is being played out, and the theories and evidence typically presented in school adequacy and desegregation lawsuits.

Cruz-Guzman alleges state policies cause “separate and unequal” schools

Cruz-Guzman was filed on behalf of parents and students attending the Minneapolis Public Schools, Special School District No. 1, and the Saint Paul Public Schools, Independent School District 625 (collectively, public schools). Plaintiffs contend the public schools are segregated on the basis of race and socioeconomic status and that this segregation violates the Minnesota Constitution’s Education Clause (Article XIII, §1), Equal Protection Clause (Article I, §2), and Due Process Clause (Article I, §7). According to the complaint, the public schools are disproportionately composed of students of color and/or students living in poverty and are not equal to whiter, more affluent schools in the surrounding area. Plaintiffs contend their schools are “separate and unequal” because inadequate resources force them to fund services addressing concentrated poverty at the expense of staffing, professional development, instructional materials, technology, and extracurricular activities. This forced allocation of resources, in turn, depresses educational opportunities, student achievement, and future employment prospects.

Plaintiffs allege the fault lies with policies that illegally segregate students along racial and economic lines. These policies include: (1) boundary decisions; (2) open enrollment policies; (3) the formation of charter schools exempted from state desegregation requirements; (4) misuse of funding; (5) the formation of community schools; (6) discriminatory discipline practices; (7) improper use of special education services, alternative schools, and limited English proficiency programs; (8) discriminatory suspension policies; (9) racially based teacher assignments; and (10) capital projects reinforcing segregation. Plaintiffs contend these practices deny public school students the educational and social benefits of an integrated education.2

Plaintiffs seek relief from the state of Minnesota, the Minnesota House of Representatives, the Minnesota Senate, the Minnesota Department of Education, and the Commissioner of Education, Dr. Brenda Cassellius (collectively, state defendants). Plaintiffs demand: (1) the certification of a class comprising public school students with the named plaintiffs acting as class representatives; (2) a decree that the state defendants are violating the Education, Equal Protection, and Due Process Clauses of the Minnesota Constitution; (3) an injunction ordering the state defendants to end and remedy their constitutional violations by providing plaintiffs with an adequate and desegregated education; and (4) their costs and attorneys’ fees. 

The state defendants argued that Cruz-Guzman raised issues best resolved by the Legislature, not the courts, and moved to dismiss the case. On July 25, 2018, a split Minnesota Supreme Court ruled 4-2 that the lawsuit could proceed, holding that “separation-of-powers principles do not prevent the judiciary from ruling on whether the Legislature has violated its duty under the Education Clause or violated the Equal Protection or Due Process Clauses of the Minnesota Constitution.” A dissent filed by Justice Anderson and joined by Chief Justice Gildea disagreed, contending the Minnesota Constitution clearly empowered the Legislature—and only the Legislature—to provide plaintiffs’ requested relief.

Minnesota’s Education Clause provides that “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.” In Skeen v. State,3 the Minnesota Supreme Court determined that education is a fundamental right under the state constitution. As the Court explained, this entitlement is not “merely a right to anything that might be labeled as ‘education,’ but rather, a right to a general and uniform system of education that is thorough and efficient, that is supported by sufficient and uniform funding, and that provides an adequate education to all students in Minnesota.”

The Cruz-Guzman Court acknowledged that the Minnesota Constitution assigned responsibility for the public school system to the Legislature and that matters of educational policy fell within that authority. Plaintiffs themselves “acknowledged that it is not the court’s function to dictate to the Legislature the manner with which it must correct its constitutional violations,” the Court noted. Nonetheless, the Court rejected the notion that “the judiciary cannot adjudicate whether the Legislature has satisfied its constitutional duty under the Education Clause,” especially considering that “the judiciary is not required to devise particular educational policies to remedy constitutional violations.” At the same time, however, the Court admitted that defining terms used in the Education Clause and determining whether the constitution was satisfied would “inevitably require[] a measure of qualitative assessment.” 

Undeterred, the Court concluded it would “not shy away from our proper role to provide remedies for violations of fundamental rights merely because education is a complex area. The judiciary is well equipped to assess whether constitutional requirements have been met and whether [Plaintiffs’] fundamental right to an adequate education has been violated.” The Court declined to accept legislative superiority in this arena, explaining “[w]e cannot fulfill our duty to adjudicate claims of constitutional violations by unquestioningly accepting that whatever the Legislature has chosen to do fulfills the Legislature’s duty to provide an adequate education.” 

The Court also rejected the state defendants’ argument that the Speech or Debate Clause of the Minnesota Constitution immunized the legislative defendants from suit. That clause provides: “The members of each house in all cases except treason, felony and breach of the peace, shall be privileged from arrest during the session of their respective houses and in going to or returning from the same. For any speech or debate in either house they shall not be questioned in any other place.”4 Simply put, the Speech or Debate Clause grants an absolute privilege from defamation liability to members of the Legislature performing official duties.

The state defendants argued this clause broadly provides immunity from suit for any actions taken in a legislative capacity. The Court disagreed, noting the state defendants’ lack of authority for their position. Ultimately, the Court declined to “interpret one provision in the constitution—the Speech or Debate Clause—to immunize the Legislature from meeting its obligation under more specific constitutional provisions—the Education, Equal Protection and Due Process Clauses.” 

Finally, the Court rejected the state defendants’ claims that necessary parties were not joined in the case. Specifically, defendants argued that some of plaintiffs’ requested remedies could only be enacted by school districts and charter schools, which are not parties. The Court noted that non-parties are frequently affected by judicial rulings regarding the constitutionality of state laws or actions, but they are not required to be parties to a suit. Consequently, while districts and/or charter schools “might eventually be affected by actions potentially taken by the State in response to this litigation, those possible effects are not enough to require that [they] be joined as necessary parties.” 

Justice Anderson, joined by Chief Justice Gildea, dissented. These justices believed that plaintiffs’ complaint presented non-justiciable, political questions whose resolution rested entirely with the Legislature. The dissent argued the plain language of the Education Clause commands the Legislature to establish and fund public schools, and further reasoned that when “the constitution textually commits a matter to another branch of government and that branch acts within the scope of its powers, we cannot review the political judgment and discretionary actions of that branch or its officials.” (Emphasis in original.) 

The dissent further contended this case differs from other Education Clause cases because Cruz-Guzman does not challenge a specific legislative enactment. The Court is not, therefore, deciding “whether a statute is constitutional or whether the acts or omissions of government actors complied with the language of a statute.” Rather, the question is more general—what constitutes an adequate education?—and the dissent argued courts are “wholly unsuited to setting constitutional minimums in education adequacy…. It is not the province of the judiciary to monitor or judge the wisdom of the policy and political decisions made to address the many factors that might lead to change in any given educational year.”

In the end, the dissent maintained, “a district court will be asked to pass judgment on plans, perhaps many plans, extending over many years, to assure that an ‘adequate’ education is provided to students.” Assuming an appeal, that court “will then weigh in on the definition of an ‘adequate’ education and whether that standard is constitutional.” Ultimately, the judiciary “will not be a bystander to this construction project; it will have final approval over what is built and how.” 

Despite these arguments, the majority of the Minnesota Supreme Court ruled that plaintiffs’ Education, Equal Protection, and Due Process Clause claims were justiciable, that the case could proceed against the legislative defendants and that potentially affected schools, districts, and/or charter schools need not be joined in the lawsuit. The Court’s ruling reversed the appellate court and upheld the district court’s ruling on the state defendants’ motion to dismiss. Cruz-Guzman now returns to the district court for further proceedings.

The national picture: Adequacy and desegregation litigation in 2018

More than 45 states have seen some version of an education “adequacy” lawsuit in their courts.5 In brief, these cases ask state courts to determine whether the public funding provided by the state for K-12 education is “adequate,” “sufficient,” or “thorough” enough to meet the public education standards set out in state constitutions. Although the case often thought to demark the origin of adequacy litigation, Robinson v. Cahill,6 was decided over 40 years ago, adequacy litigation can be thought of as the natural successor to so-called equity lawsuits and even desegregation cases.7 Those latter cases began to wane after a trio of Supreme Court decisions in the 1990s that spurred federal trial courts to release school districts and states from judicial supervision over desegregation programs, many of which were aimed at providing compensatory relief to formerly de jure segregated public schools by ordering increased state and local funding to be provided to those schools.8

Equity lawsuits, the first wave of public school funding litigation, were aimed at remedying public funding differences across schools and districts in a given state. Those differences were largely the result of school funding systems that often relied on a local property tax as one component of the funding mechanism, usually coupled with state revenues generated by state income or other taxes. As one might expect, one result of this type of system is that school districts that have high property tax valuations—because, for example, they have highly assessed commercial property or include amenities such as resort areas—are able to generate higher funding from their local components and accordingly are able to fund their schools at higher levels than districts that lacked local property wealth. Plaintiffs in equity lawsuits were often successful in arguing that children from relatively property-poor districts should not receive less funding (and less education resources) than students who attended schools in districts with more property wealth.

To remedy these variations, and sometimes as a result of court orders in equity cases, states began to formulate equalizing components into their school-funding mechanisms so that relatively fewer state dollars would flow to property rich districts, while additional “equalizing” dollars would flow from the state to those districts that had lower local property valuations. A few states, such as New Mexico, broke new ground and virtually did away with the local property tax component to their funding systems, greatly reducing—if not eliminating—variations in the revenues per pupil across districts. Over time, however, plaintiffs began to focus more on “adequacy,” shifting the argument from “all students deserve equal funding” to a new contention that students are entitled to funding adequate to meet their particular needs, considering factors such as student poverty, student disabilities, and English language status.

In recent years, adequacy lawsuits have been tried in a number of states, including Kansas, Missouri, South Dakota, New York, Connecticut, New Mexico, and Montana, among others. Today’s adequacy trial is a highly developed exercise, involving sophisticated and complicated expert studies, testimony from dozens of witnesses, and the filing of hundreds, if not thousands, of exhibits. These trials often last for months, and plaintiffs may be represented by large, sophisticated law firms working on a pro bono or reduced rate basis. This commitment of resources is appropriate, considering that millions, and sometimes billions, of dollars are at stake.

Typical theories and proof

Adequacy lawsuits are often reduced to a simple question—does money matter? While this inquiry makes for a catchy soundbite, it obscures the fact that such cases involve complex, politically charged questions about the achievement gap that persists in every state between children from disadvantaged backgrounds and their peers from more economically secure families. Plaintiffs, for their part, generally argue that more funding is needed to provide services to at-risk students and that the state’s failure to appropriate more money is directly responsible for lackluster student performance. Defendants, in contrast, often contend that appropriations are adequate but mis- or underused, and that money alone cannot close an achievement gap caused by non-school factors like poverty. Put in soundbite terms, plaintiffs argue that “more money matters most,” while defendants counter that “how you handle money matters most.”

Evidence in adequacy cases tends to focus on three things: (1) school resources (inputs); (2) student performance (outputs); and (3) the relationship between those factors (causation). Plaintiffs’ goal is to show that a lack of school resources is directly responsible for poor student performance, while defendants want to demonstrate that resources are adequate and, in any event, there is no direct causal relationship between increased funding and higher student achievement. Evidence demonstrating inputs and outputs tends to be data-based and provided through witnesses like education department officials, school administrators, teachers, parents, students, and legislators. Evidence of causation, however, is generally provided by expert witnesses who have devoted their careers to investigating the relationship, or lack thereof, between spending and student achievement.

While every state varies, most have a school funding formula that dictates how much money each school district receives annually. Adequacy lawsuits are usually filed when the state reduces or fails to increase the amount of money flowing through this formula to the schools. The goal of plaintiffs’ input evidence is to show how these funding choices affect at-risk students. This is generally accomplished through testimony describing the enhanced needs of these students and how such needs are left unmet because of staffing shortages, inferior technology and instructional resources, an inability to fund additional instructional time, a lack of counselors, and a dearth of extracurricular opportunities.
Defendants’ input evidence, in contrast, focuses on the total funding districts receive from all sources and how such money is managed. To that end, defense witnesses may testify that at-risk students receive more (sometimes significantly more) targeted funding from state and federal sources, that districts frequently do not prioritize learning over unnecessary administrative and staffing costs, that schools fail to utilize all funding available to them, and that existing resources within schools are adequate. 

Depending upon the state, each side might also introduce evidence of recently enacted education initiatives and argue about their effectiveness. Examples of such initiatives include teacher evaluation systems incorporating a student growth component, implementation of a Common Core curriculum, specific reading/math programs, and systems driving increased accountability from the districts to the state. Generally speaking, plaintiffs tend to argue such initiatives are not enough or even harmful, while defendants contend they are effective or so new they must be given time to work.

Outcome evidence is fairly straightforward. Plaintiffs produce standardized test scores for students, or a subset of students, as evidence of inadequacy. Defendants then provide alternate explanations for those scores, such as student characteristics or ineffective staffing, and/or seek to mitigate such evidence by showing that students within certain subgroups are showing growth toward closing the achievement gap. 

It is causation—the relationship between school inputs and student outputs—that provides the most hotly contested issue in any adequacy lawsuit, if not the entire field of education. Researchers spend entire careers analyzing whether there is a systematic causal relationship between funding and achievement. These experts provide the key testimony as to whether an alleged lack of inputs causes low student outcomes. The evidence supporting such conclusions usually consists of statistical regression analyses using student longitudinal data. Or, in plain English, an examination of whether student achievement over time is attributable to in-school resources like class size, teacher experience, or per-pupil spending or to non-school factors like poverty, the educational attainment of the parents, and English language learner status. 

Not surprisingly, plaintiffs’ experts generally claim a causal link exists between funding and achievement, while defense experts argue student outcomes are almost entirely driven by non-school factors. The evidence presented by both sides falls into two categories: (1) historical and (2) state-specific. Regarding the former, experts from both sides may examine previous studies addressing this issue and debate their relative merits. Regarding the latter, experts may examine several years’ worth of state-specific student data—usually standardized test scores and student demographic information—to analyze the factors most closely correlated with achievement. The results provide some of the most revealing evidence about the various factors that influence student achievement, and to what extent. 

In the end, adequacy lawsuits are a close examination of how a public school system is functioning. Questions of how much money is needed, whether the districts are good stewards of those dollars, and whether students (and which students) are learning are complicated, emotionally charged questions of the utmost importance. The Cruz-Guzman case now presents those very questions to Minnesota courts. Although the lawsuit focuses on the Minneapolis and St. Paul districts, the issues raised by the case and the resolution reached by the courts are likely to resound throughout Minnesota.

 

JAMIE BOYER is a partner in Stinson Leonard Street LLP’s St. Louis office. A substantial portion of her practice focuses on school funding issues. Jamie has represented states throughout the country in adequacy cases, including South Dakota, Washington, New York, and New Mexico. Additionally, she has assisted state officials and legislators in drafting school funding legislation.  

JOHN MUNICH is a partner in Stinson Leonard Street’s St. Louis office and chairs the firm’s Business and Commercial Litigation 1 division. John has served as lead trial counsel in a number of school desegregation and school funding cases across the country, ranging from New York to Washington state and Florida to North Dakota. He also served as counsel of record for the State of Missouri before the United States Supreme Court in Missouri v. Jenkins, one of the most significant school desegregation cases in the last 30 years. He speaks and writes extensively on issues related to public education.

 

Notes

1 Cruz-Guzman v. State of Minnesota, 27-CV-15-19117.

2 A portion of plaintiffs’ allegations mirror those brought in a case a number of years ago involving the Hartford, Connecticut schools, Sheff v. O’Neill, 238 Conn. 1 (1996) and closely resemble the types of claims and arguments asserted in federal court desegregation lawsuits. These types of claims involve complex analyses of the racial compositions of schools, housing patterns, achievement and other outcome disparities existing among different demographic groups, and so on. Cruz-Guzman is a relatively rare lawsuit that marries these type of desegregation claims along with a traditional school funding challenge.

3 Skeen v. State, 505 N.W.2d 299, 313 (Minn. 1993),

4 Minn. Const. art IV, §10.

5 Funding adequacy cases have been decided in every state except Mississippi, Nevada, Utah, and Hawaii.

6 Robinson v. Cahill, 62 N.J. 473 (1973).

7 See J. Dunn and M. West, From Schoolhouse to Courthouse – The Judiciary’s Role in American Education (2009) 96 ff.

8 See, e.g., Missouri v. Jenkins, in which the trial court ordered state and local governments to provide over $1.3 billion in additional funding to pay for physical upgrades, additional educational programs, and magnet schools intended to draw non-minority children to public schools within the urban Kansas City, Missouri district. In 1995, the United States Supreme Court held that the remedy imposed by the lower court in Kanas City exceeded the scope of the violation. 515 U.S. 70 (1995).

 

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