January 9, 2018

The Court’s Role in Education: Why the Cruz-Guzman Lawsuit is a Big Deal

By Brandie Burris-Gallagher

Today, the Minnesota Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in Cruz-Guzman v. State of Minnesota, a lawsuit alleging that the state is not providing an adequate education to all children (a live stream is available here starting at 10 a.m.). This hotly contested case has raised many questions, especially around school segregation and parent choice—both issues that have gotten a lot of attention recently.

But, today, there will be only one question before the Court: Is this lawsuit justiciable? If the State Constitution guarantees Minnesota children access to an adequate education, is it the Judiciary’s responsibility to determine whether that’s happening? This question—and how the Supreme Court chooses to answer it—could have a huge impact on kids and education justice in our state.

WHAT’S CRUZ-GUZMAN ABOUT AND WHY IS IT BEFORE THE SUPREME COURT?

In November 2015, seven parents and guardians filed suit in Hennepin County District Court, accusing state officials of enabling school segregation in the Twin Cities metro area and thereby denying students of color their constitutional right to an “adequate” education. After some back-and-forth in District Court, the case ultimately made its way to the Court of Appeals, which dismissed the case in March 2017, finding that the case is not justiciable: The Constitution makes it the Legislature’s responsibility, not the Judiciary’s, to determine whether the state is providing an adequate education. The plaintiffs appealed this ruling, sending the case—and specifically the question of justiciability—to the Minnesota Supreme Court.

WHY THE SUPREME COURT’S DECISION IS A BIG DEAL

On a first read, it may sound like the courts are considering a technical legal question. But make no mistake: If the Supreme Court upholds the Court of Appeals’ decision, it will set a precedent with meaningful implications for kids. Essentially, by deciding that education adequacy is an issue for the Legislature and the Legislature alone, it would become much more difficult for parents and advocates to challenge educational injustices through the courts.

In the short term, if the Supreme Court dismisses Cruz-Guzman on justiciability grounds, it would likely do the same for Forslund v. Minnesota, a pending lawsuit asking the Court to consider how teacher tenure laws might run counter to Minnesota students’ right to an adequate education. In the long term, such a decision would signal that the Court could leave the question of adequacy to the Legislature as a general practice, making it harder for parents, students, and other stakeholders to ask the Judiciary to challenge the state’s inaction, or inability, to ensure that every child is getting the education they deserve.

WHAT TO EXPECT

Today, Jan. 9, both parties in the Cruz-Guzman lawsuit will present oral arguments on the justiciability question before the Supreme Court. After that, the Court will take time—anywhere from a few months to over a year—to consider both sides and issue a decision. If the Court upholds the dismissal, the Cruz-Guzman lawsuit will conclude (at least in its current form), and the ability of stakeholders to use the Judiciary to advocate for education justice will be significantly limited.

If the Court reverses the Court of Appeals’ earlier dismissal, the case would likely be remanded to Hennepin County District Court, which could decide to dismiss the case on other grounds or allow the case to proceed and decide for or against the plaintiffs based on the facts. If the Supreme Court affirms the Judiciary’s ability to hear cases regarding the adequacy of education under the Constitution, such a decision would mean that parents and students can likely challenge education injustices for underserved students through the courts.

Although I have concerns with the merits of the Cruz-Guzman plaintiffs’ case, I hope the Supreme Court will deem the case justiciable and play a role in determining the state’s standard for education adequacy. Minnesota students need a Legislature and Judiciary willing to boldly advocate for the great education they deserve.