June 14, 2018

Centering the School Integration Conversation on What Matters Most

By Brandie Burris-Gallagher

As kids around the state start their summer break, I’m anxiously tracking a court case that could have a huge impact on them: Cruz-Guzman v. State of Minnesota. Depending on how this case plays out, certain outcomes could significantly undermine the power of families—especially those who have historically been the most underserved—to find and access the best schools for their children. In January, the Minnesota Supreme Court heard oral arguments about whether to appeal or dismiss the case (as I wrote back then, a dismissal could raise a whole host of concerns, which I won’t address here).

While I’m anxious about how the Court will rule (a decision could come any day), I’m even more anxious about how we, as a community, will respond. However it plays out, the Cruz-Guzman lawsuit gives us an opportunity to have an honest, productive conversation about what students and families of color deserve. I hope we’ll take it.

RECAP: WHAT’S CRUZ-GUZMAN ABOUT?

The case started when seven families sued the state, alleging that it’s enabled school segregation in the Twin Cities metro area, and as a result, denied students of color their right under the Minnesota Constitution to an “adequate” education. Their basic premise is that a school that serves predominantly students of color, by virtue of that fact alone, cannot possibly be adequate. Two Twin Cities charter schools that serve mostly children of color, and do so well, have intervened in the lawsuit. Though some charter schools might serve predominantly children of color (because they offer unique supports for students’ cultural, ethnic, and linguistic needs), these intervening schools argue that this is due to parents’ individual choices, and therefore permissible under Minnesota law and the Minnesota Constitution.

The plaintiffs’ claim that a segregated school setting is inherently inadequate is one that I’m hearing more frequently, often from white progressives. On its face, it seems benign, even commendable. But in reality, I worry that it reinforces the kind of white-centered thinking that has tried to keep me and students who look like me down for decades.

WHAT’S THE CASE REALLY ABOUT?

I have no doubt that the plaintiffs brought this case because they genuinely want better opportunities for their children. However, I worry that underlying their case are two dangerous, and false, notions that have been around long before this lawsuit: (1) children of color can’t learn in schools without white children, and (2) families of color shouldn’t have the right to choose the best school for their kids.

Any effort to integrate schools that would restrict access to schools that currently serve children of color well is wrong.

Let me explain. First, the idea that a non-integrated school cannot be adequate is flat-out wrong. In fact, many schools that serve predominantly, or even exclusively, students of color do much better than state and district averages for those students. Further, there’s plenty of evidence that, even in “integrated” settings, children of color are routinely disproportionately identified for special education and removed from school through suspensions and expulsionsheld to lower expectations, and less likely to be academically proficient. Quite simply, the racial makeup of a school is not a proxy for education adequacy.

Second, any effort that places school integration as the be-all-end-all risks taking away historically underserved families’ hard-won power to choose where their children go to school. We know that families with financial privilege (historically, white families) have long had this power. In every place I’ve ever lived, if you can afford to buy a home in an exclusive neighborhood or pay private school tuition, your children will receive a high-quality education. Meanwhile, if you can’t afford that, your only option is to send your children to the zoned district school and hope for the best. That school might be a good fit, and prepare your kids to live their most dignified life—or it very well might not.

Although there is still a lot of work to do to change this, Minnesota has made some progress. By expanding family choice, through open enrollment, homeschooling, magnet programs, charter schools, etc., we’ve started chipping away at the idea that only families with means can access the school option that works for their children. And, we’re seeing that when given the choice, many families of color are intentionally choosing schools that, similar to historically black colleges and universities, create both an academically rigorous and culturally affirming learning environment for their children.

Even if well-intentioned, the Cruz-Guzman lawsuit and other efforts that would value school integration above all else—above the outcomes or agency of communities of color—could take us backward. By making schools’ racial makeup the bottom line, these efforts threaten to strip away choice from the very families who need it most, and roll back schools that are working well for their children.

LOOKING AHEAD

With its upcoming decision, the Minnesota Supreme Court will not rule on the merits of Cruz-Guzman. Instead, it will decide whether educational adequacy is a question for the courts or the Legislature. If the Court sends the case back to district court for trial, it will have to decide exactly what issues can be tried. This means that the substance of a trial, and its potential outcomes, are very much up in the air.

Still, whatever happens, one thing is clear: The conversation about whether and how to integrate schools will continue. As it does, let me be clear: Any effort to integrate schools that would restrict access to schools that currently serve children of color well is wrong. Any effort to integrate schools that would put the burden on families of color is wrong. Any effort to integrate schools that wouldn’t consider the actual experiences and outcomes of children of color is wrong.

Regardless of how it plays out, the Cruz-Guzman lawsuit will likely ramp up the local conversation about school integration. Let’s get it right by digging even deeper, and making the needs, assets, and outcomes of children of color—and the agency of their families—the bottom line.