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?

That evening the NAACP held a meeting at Sabathani Community Center. John Shulman and Almonor were supposed to speak to the branch's members. Instead, Daniel Shulman took the podium and explained that because of "decisions made within the office," his son and daughter-in-law had been "reassigned." (No one associated with the suit will explain what that meant.)

At meetings held shortly afterward, NAACP members voted to reject the proposed settlement. Some members say they also recall passing a motion that ordered the Shulmans to stop negotiating and prepare for a trial instead. But with the status of the branch still in doubt, it wasn't clear who had the authority to make such a decision.

In any case the mediation continued, with John Shulman and Almonor in charge. In November the attorneys announced that the most recent round of talks had failed.

Kimberly Schamber

In January Campbell told branch members that the state was ready to return to the bargaining table. This time the judge, and not paid mediators, would head the negotiations. The stakes had gone up; school board members were scheduled to start giving sworn depositions in preparation for a trial.

 

On February 26, NAACP branch members showed up for their monthly meeting to learn that Campbell and several other officers and members were engaged in around-the-clock talks with officials from the state and various metro-area school districts. Only one of the parents who had signed on to the original suit was taking part; parents involved with the second suit, the one filed independent of the NAACP, didn't even know about the meetings.

At 2:00 a.m. March 13, there was a deal. At 10:00 a.m., Judge Larson sent out a news release announcing that a settlement had been reached--just two days shy of the date depositions were to have begun. For the agreement to take effect, each of the parties--the state, the NAACP, Minneapolis Public Schools and the eight participating suburban districts--would have to approve it.

Proponents called it a breakthrough. The Star Tribune's editorial board commended the parties for coming together "after years of well-intentioned and passionate debate." Shulman dubbed it "a radical departure from business as usual."

But those who studied the fine print--released a few days after Judge Larson's announcement--were not convinced. Of the deal's key elements, they noted, several mirrored state or city policies already in place, and the few that actually broke new ground did not go terribly far.

Perhaps the deal's most prominent feature is an agreement under which 500 Minneapolis children from low-income neighborhoods will be eligible for state-paid busing to eight suburban school districts each year for four years. Under the state's open-enrollment law, Minneapolis students already have the option of attending suburban schools, though they now must provide their own transportation. In the past, many suburban schools have closed their doors to students from other districts citing overcrowding; under the settlement, most will have to make room for urban kids, albeit only a handful per grade. (As it happens, the eight districts that participated in the settlement were already under pressure to diversify their student bodies: A state desegregation guideline calls for districts to cooperate with their "racially isolated" neighbors.)

The settlement's second major point calls for the state to issue biennial "report cards" to Minneapolis schools. Schools that don't meet certain performance thresholds are to be overhauled in a process called "Fresh Start." Again, the concept is nothing new: The report cards are essentially identical to those released by the Minneapolis Foundation in a February study titled Measuring Up: A Report on the Minneapolis Public Schools 2000. Minneapolis has been issuing its own report cards for years, and superintendent Carol Johnson began mandating a "Fresh Start" for failing schools in 1996.

The deal's third element does offer something new: Children whose families qualify for free and reduced-price lunches will be given priority for slots at popular magnet schools in the city. (Currently only children of district employees, and those with siblings in the same school are eligible for preferred placement.) Sample scenarios posted on the district's Web site suggest that between 16 and 20 kindergarten slots will become available in each magnet. At higher grade levels, the settlement might open up just three seats per school.

Still, Shulman calls the Minneapolis settlement the best that has been achieved anywhere in the nation. He points to an educational-adequacy suit filed by an American Civil Liberties Union chapter against the school district in Compton, California. Far poorer than Minneapolis, that district had been taken over by the state; the settlement will guarantee such basics as functioning toilets, windows with glass in them, and textbooks. The Minneapolis agreement, Shulman points out, goes further than that.

But Harvard's Orfield and others can rattle off any number of places where similar suits brought far more dramatic results. Under a 1976 settlement in Wisconsin, some 6,000 students travel from Milwaukee to its suburbs. Boston has a massive, voluntary interdistrict desegregation plan. Schools in the St. Louis area operate under a 1994 agreement that requires them to accept city kids until their student bodies become 25 percent minority. Indianapolis is considering promoting desegregation by diversifying neighborhoods, in part through affordable-housing construction in the suburbs.

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