Magic Bus

The NAACP's education lawsuit promised to be a watershed case for poor and minority kids. So when exactly did the wheels come off?

She understands, Eubanks says, that no suit pressed on behalf of nearly 50,000 students was going to address all of her concerns. "But I hoped that we would get something out of the deal."

 

By the time Eubanks pulled her kids out of the public schools, the debate over school integration had been going on for 40 years. Desegregation was made the law of the land in 1954 by the U.S. Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education. Minneapolis wasn't forced to fully integrate for another 20 years, when the NAACP took the district to court.

Kimberly Schamber

In 1972 U.S. District Court Judge Earl Larson ruled that Minneapolis had "intentionally and deliberately" kept students segregated. He ordered the district to make sure that minority enrollment didn't top 35 percent at any single school. (At the time Minneapolis had 55,000 students; 80 percent of them were white.) "A school district," he ruled, "may not permit educational choices to be influenced by a policy of racial segregation in order to accommodate community sentiment or to appease the wishes of even a majority of the voters."

To help the desegregation effort, 11,000 students were bused to schools outside of their neighborhoods. Parents were allowed to choose any school in the district, although the most popular--often magnet programs that focused on things like language instruction or environmental education--were filled through lotteries. For more than a decade, students' test scores rose, and it looked like integration was delivering. In 1983 Judge Larson released the school district from federal supervision based on a promise that the State of Minnesota would enforce desegregation guidelines.

State supervision didn't prove too effective. By 1995 nine Minneapolis schools were in violation of the state's desegregation rule, and several others were close. (Under the rule, no school could have more than 15 percent fewer or more students of color than the district as a whole; by that time, 50 percent of Minneapolis students were white, but some schools were close to 90 percent minority.)

"As the minority population began to grow, it became more of a problem for the city and the state [to provide] meaningful desegregation," says NAACP veteran Matt Little, who was involved with both the 1972 integration suit and the current effort. He appealed to the Legislature, which appointed a panel to find alternate ways of ensuring diversity in schools. But the group's recommendations, things like creating metrowide magnet schools, were dismissed by the state board of education.

"So at that time we had absolutely no choice," Little explains. "We had to take the state to court because they were the ones who said they would take responsibility for seeing desegregation upheld." He and other desegregation supporters took their case to Daniel Shulman, a Minneapolis antitrust attorney who had represented the NAACP for more than two decades. He assigned the suit to two young Harvard Law School alumni in his office--his son, John Shulman, and John's wife, Jeanne-Marie Almonor.

The pair dove into the case with a new legal theory. Around the nation federal courts were backing away from the idea that the federal constitution mandated integrated schools. So Shulman and Almonor constructed a case based on the Minnesota constitution, which called for all children to get an "adequate" education. Minneapolis schools were falling short of that mandate, they planned to argue, because they served a disproportionate number of poor and minority students.

The numbers seemed to bear them out. According to statistics produced by the state Department of Children, Families, and Learning, 70 percent of Minneapolis's almost 50,000 students were minorities in the 1998-99 school year. By contrast, the student body in the southern suburb of Farmington was almost 98 percent white. In Eden Prairie 7 percent of students were kids of color; in Rosemount/Apple Valley/Eagan the figure was 10 percent; in Westonka, 4 percent.

Politically, the suit--filed on September 1995 on behalf of the NAACP along with seven students and their parents--seemed like a perfect fit for Minneapolis's DFL establishment. Little and Barbara Bearman, another veteran of the 1972 lawsuit, were both well-connected party activists. The top defendant, then-Gov. Arne Carlson, was a Republican. Minneapolis school board chair Judy Farmer says district officials at the time were quietly considering either filing a similar lawsuit or joining the NAACP effort. St. Paul's public schools had already filed a similar suit of their own.

"We talked to St. Paul about it," remembers Farmer, "and had discussions about whether we should sue the state also. There has been discussion about whether the state was giving us enough money."

As it turned out, the Minneapolis schools never did join the case. "They may have lost interest when we said that the suit wasn't about money," surmises Shulman. The suit's backers believed that, instead of just ordering more funding for Minneapolis, the courts should break down the barriers between metro-area schools: "The basic position was that if we took the suit to court, and we won, and we survived the appeals process, we would seek a consolidated, metrowide school district."

Farmer says the board's decision had nothing to do with the particulars of the case. "We asked ourselves, 'Is that the wisest use of our resources?'" she recalls. "We decided that since the NAACP was already suing, we'd use our own resources to educate kids." And educating kids, the district had concluded, meant implementing a new policy that would move kids into increasingly segregated neighborhood schools.

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