Determining Education Rights for Students under Minnesota Constitution

January 18, 2018

In November 2015, Parents of children who are enrolled, or are expected to be enrolled, in Minneapolis public schools, Special School District 1, and St. Paul Public Schools, ISD 625, sued the State of Minnesota, Minnesota Department of Education, Minnesota Department of Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius, and the Minnesota Senate and Minnesota House of Representatives. Plaintiff’s also named Governor Mark Dayton, Senate President Sandra L. Pappas, and House Speaker Kurt Daudt as defendants. The parents claimed the defendants had violated the Education, Equal Protection, and Due Process Clauses of the Minnesota Constitution, arguing that their children had been denied the fundamental right to receive an education.

In addition, Plaintiff’s asserted that defendants had violated the Minnesota Human Rights Act, arguing that the children had been unlawfully discriminated against “in education on the basis of race and status with regard to public assistance.”The basis of this claim was that Minneapolis and St. Paul School Districts are segregated on the basis of race and socioeconomic status, and as a matter of law and of fact, these schools are not equal to neighboring whiter and more affluent suburban schools. Plaintiffs go on to argue that due to the separate and unequal nature of these institutions, the education of these institutions is inadequate.

The defendants in this case moved to dismiss the Plaintiff’s complaint under Minnesota Rules of Civil Procedure 12.02, arguing that the court lacked subject matter jurisdiction; that the plaintiffs fail to state a claim; and that plaintiff’s failed to join necessary parties. Alternatively, the defendants sought a more definite statements under Minnesota Rule of Civil Procedure 12.05.

As to defendants Governor Dayton, Senate President Pappas, and Speaker Daudt the district court dismissed the complaint, citing immunity under the Speech and Debate Clause of the Minnesota Constitution. The district court also find that Plaintiffs lacked standing to use under the Minnesota Human Rights Act. The remaining motions were denied.

The defendants appealed the district court’s decisions on four grounds: 1) the district court erred by refusing to dismiss, on legislative-immunity grounds, the claims against the Minnesota Senate and Minnesota House of Representatives; 2) the district court erred by refusing to dismiss the complaint as one that presents a nonjusticiable political question; 3) the district court erred by refusing to dismiss the complaint based on respondents’ failure to join all interested persons; and 4)  the district court erred by refusing to dismiss the claims against the State of Minnesota because it is not a proper party defendant. Appellants also petitioned for discretionary review of the district court’s refusal to dismiss respondents’ claims on the merits.

On April 26, 2017, the Minnesota Court of Appeals reversed the trial court’s determination that there was standing to pursue this case, and granted Defendant’s motion to dismiss the claims. The court held that whether students of color are getting an adequate education is a nonjusticiable political question- or one for the legislature, not the courts.

The decision by the Court of Appeals was appealed, and the Minnesota Supreme Court heard oral arguments on Tuesday, January 9, 2018.The issues that were addressed where whether the case should proceed on the ground that the demographic makeup of the schools violated either the equal protection clause or the education clause of the Minnesota State Constitution.

Attorneys for Defendants argued that while the constitution guarantees an education, it does not set a specific standard to that education, and does not guarantee quality for that education. Defendants also asserted that determining educational quality is not the job of a judge, but the job of the legislature.

The oral arguments stalled a bit during questions from the judges regarding what inadequate education may look like, and how to position this dilemma with the fact that the legislature has delegated a lot of control to local school districts, allowing them to essentially govern themselves. Further, Chief Justice Lorie Skjerven Gildea stated that she found it “pretty breathtaking” to want to hold the state accountable for a problem its statutes did not create.

The Minnesota Supreme Court is not being asked to rule on the merits of the case, but instead will decide what kind of educational rights students have under the Minnesota constitution, and whether courts are able to rule on the issue of whether those rights are being violated.

This case is very similar to a 1998 case, brought by the same Plaintiff’s Attorney, Dan Shulman, the settlement of which created The Choice Is Yours, a school-choice program that enabled low-income Minneapolis students to attend suburban schools in districts that volunteered for the program, with transportation being covered by the state for these students.

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