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?

Evelyn Eubanks uses a bare foot to push a crate of papers past her solid, reddish-wood buffet, whose leaded-glass cupboards overflow with textbooks. Math, phonics, world history, religion; the volumes run from primers for beginners to thicker, heavier tomes for older students. Still more books are crammed into a sideboard along another wall of the room. Two or three rest atop a long table in front of the china cabinet.

This is Eubanks's dining room--and classroom, the space where she has home-schooled five of her six kids for the last five years. Periodically she gives samples of their work to state officials, who in turn send back report cards. They show that all of the kids have been scoring well above average, and several are earning straight A's.

She ducks into a back room and returns carrying a blue plastic bin the size of a laundry basket, packed with still more papers. She rifles through dozens of files stacked in the container and starts pulling out documents that show why she took her kids out of the Minneapolis public schools. She comes across some bits of paper concerning her daughter: Back in 1991, the girl earned straight A's in kindergarten. But administrators at her school concluded that instead of being considered for the gifted and talented program, she should be in remedial classes.

Next, Eubanks unearths crumbling report cards from the year her son was in second grade. At some point, his teachers quit sending home letter grades and started evaluating him based on his behavior in school. The kid's report cards were just fine either way, but Eubanks was furious: "His behavior--that's my job," she fumes. "The schools are supposed to teach him to read and write."

A few years ago, when Eubanks lined up the documents sent home with her kids and added in the things she'd heard school administrators say about the challenges posed by families like hers--black, low-income, headed by a single parent--she came to an ugly conclusion. Year after year test scores had been showing that too many minority children were failing in the Minneapolis schools. Someone--or maybe just the system--must have gotten tired of the dismal statistics and decided to lower the bar. If her kids just showed up and behaved right, the schools would count them as success stories--whether or not they were ready to succeed in real life.

At this point Eubanks's speech takes on a politician's practiced cadence. "Just because we are low-income does not mean we are low-life," she says. And: "They were teaching my children not to compete in a competitive world." Listen to her for a while and it becomes clear that she speaks in sound bites because she's been talking about these topics for years.

Back in 1983 Eubanks heeded district officials' calls for more "parent involvement" and joined the parent-teacher organizations at both of her kids' schools. She took turns serving as president of each; she also joined the panel charged with deciding how and what kids at one of her children's schools would be taught.

By her own admission, Eubanks asked so many pointed questions, she soon found herself ostracized. "I have a horrible reputation as a whiner and a complainer and an eccentric," she laughs. Eventually, she recalls, her kids started to hear school employees criticize her. That's when she gave up on working within the system.

Which brings her to a second stack of documents--a paper trail tracing her involvement with a five-year lawsuit filed by the Minneapolis NAACP. In 1995 the civil-rights organization sued the State of Minnesota, charging that Twin Cities public schools had failed to provide the "adequate education" mandated by the state constitution. It had done this, the suit charged, by allowing poor and minority children to become segregated into inferior schools. At the time, the attorneys and assorted power brokers who spearheaded the suit said it was a landmark case: If the NAACP won--or even if it only negotiated a settlement--poor Minneapolis kids would be guaranteed the kind of topnotch education their wealthier counterparts took for granted.

Eubanks was not one of the seven parents named in the lawsuit, but she was determined to help. In 1997 she began attending brainstorming sessions and mediation workshops, and rallying other parents. She also joined the NAACP's education committee. Her files from that time are crammed with agendas, outlines of negotiating strategies, consultants' reports.

But about a year ago, Eubanks quit going to the meetings. Somehow, none of her concerns had ended up in the documents the attorneys were using to draw up proposals for a settlement. When a deal was finally announced this past March, all she could muster was a frustrated feeling of déjà vu.

"I left one system that exploited me and went to another," she says, shaking her head. "I was used. And I say 'used' because all of my participation did not result in a better education for my kids or anyone else."

Under the deal, each year 500 Minneapolis children will be able to use state-paid transportation to attend schools in the suburbs. In addition, low-income children will be given admissions preference at popular magnet schools, and educators will perform biennial evaluations of every school in the district. Proponents of the deal are calling it a strong first step; critics like Eubanks say it doesn't even begin to provide the basics their kids need right now.

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.

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.

 

Eubanks's tidy stucco bungalow sits just southwest of the intersection of West Broadway and Penn Avenue North on Minneapolis's near north side. On the map district officials use to decide where children will go to school, that puts her family in the elongated square known as attendance area 18A.

Before Eubanks pulled her kids out of the public schools, the youngest attended Lincoln Community School, a short hop to the south. A whopping 93 percent of Lincoln's students are poor, according to district data, and state figures show that in the 1998-99 school year all but 15 of its 754 kids were minorities. More important to Eubanks, a recent study spearheaded by the Minneapolis Foundation shows Lincoln living up to just 17 percent of the district's criteria for school performance.

If Eubanks were to live just a few miles further south, in attendance area 33, between Lake Harriet and Edina, her kids would be assigned to a community school called Lake Harriet Upper Campus. There, more than 50 percent of the students are white and just 32 percent come from low-income families. The school met 83 percent of the district's benchmarks in the Minneapolis Foundation study.

The map placing Eubanks's kids at Lincoln, and Linden Hills students at Lake Harriet, can be found in the district's 2000-01 school guide. The booklet lists the buildings designated as each area's "community schools," and includes a brief description of each. Schools in the city's toniest neighborhoods boast computer labs, Internet access, artists in residence, and foreign-language instruction. Some of those with the poorest student bodies and the lowest test scores offer anger-management and conflict-resolution programs along with choir and band.

The Minneapolis Public Schools began its policy of sending most students to community schools in 1995, just months after the NAACP filed its integration suit. At the time district officials--led by then-superintendent Peter Hutchinson, and cheered on by Minneapolis Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton--acknowledged that the move would exacerbate segregation. But that downside would be outweighed by the benefits of having kids go to school close to home.

The move stunned integration backers in the NAACP, says Little. One minute Minneapolis officials were quietly signaling support for the lawsuit, and the next they were implementing a policy that seemed to pursue the opposite goal. "We said, 'Okay, there's nothing wrong with neighborhood schools as long as the neighborhoods are desegregated,'" he recalls. "But as it is now, we would be talking about 'hood schools, not neighborhood schools."

It's true, adds Little, that many minority parents resented the idea that in order to learn, their child needed to travel to a white neighborhood. He sympathizes with those who hoped to simply improve the quality of neighborhood schools. But, he adds, that wasn't going to happen. "As long as African Americans and poor people are trapped without political and economic power...they may do a little patch-up here and a fix there, but things aren't going to really change."

 

In May 1997 a who's who of powerful, liberal Minnesotans gathered for breakfast at the exclusive Minneapolis Club. No one will divulge the exact guest list, but attendees recall that Sayles Belton was there, along with a roster of local corporate do-gooders. Little and Bearman also attended the meeting, which Bearman says was designed to raise money for the NAACP lawsuit "from the business community and so on."

DFL stalwart and publisher Vance Opperman played host. A veteran fundraiser with powerful connections and deep pockets, he wrote out a check for $50,000 and handed it to Bearman and Little. Opperman's was the only check cut that day, but Bearman and Little say they were confident there would be future donations. (Opperman did not return calls seeking comment for this story.)

The NAACP had some cash of its own. It had been reimbursed for its costs connected with the federal housing discrimination case known as Hollman v. Cisneros, and for a discrimination suit it had pressed on behalf of Minneapolis firefighters. With the group's seed money, Opperman's check, and some help from the Minneapolis Foundation, a fund was established to help defray the lawsuit's costs. Foundation officials say the fund received several donations, including a $58,000 contribution from St. Paul's Otto Bremer Foundation for mediation expenses.

Two months after the fundraising breakfast, the NAACP and the state Attorney General's Office jointly hired Cambridge, Massachusetts-based Conflict Management, Inc. to visit Minneapolis and talk to people on both sides of the debate. The firm--whose list of credits includes its involvement in drafting the 1978 Camp David accords between Israel and Egypt--held three public forums and interviewed 150 people. In January 1998 Conflict Management released a report recommending that the two sides attempt to negotiate a settlement.

The process, Bearman says, was designed to be dynamic and grassroots-oriented. "The mediators would meet with all these people, and they would find the common ground," she says. "The beauty of it was the number of stakeholders it was supposed to involve."

Outside the mediation sessions, however, the "stakeholders" had gotten into a slugfest. In October 1997 the district held a farewell party for outgoing superintendent Hutchinson at the Nicollet Island Inn. Forty parents showed up to protest the celebration, saying the district shouldn't fete the architect of a scheme that would increase segregation.

In the ensuing months, the parents took their protests to school-board meetings. Things quickly grew more strident, and soon people were calling African-American board members "Uncle Toms." Within months, the protests had grown so loud--drums were banged at one session--that board members walked out of one meeting and established strict ground rules for others.

While Shulman denies claims that his law firm orchestrated the protests, he concedes that the attention they drew was useful. "Did we need some coverage? Yes, we did," he says. "In fact, my office alerted the media to some of the protests. But the mainstream media is more interested in conflict than in substantive issues. Were [the protests] counterproductive? Not a chance."

Either way, many of Shulman's backers say the demonstrations sundered the suit's chances for finding widespread support. Bearman says the scenes at the school board "threw a monkey-wrench" into efforts to locate funds for the case: She and Little had lined up someone--she won't say whom--to help raise money, but both the fundraiser and potential donors were horrified at the protests. Shulman says he began getting calls from community leaders, both black and white, asking him to rein the parents in.

The dispute helped touch off a bitter power struggle within the Minneapolis NAACP (see "Black Like Us," March 17, 1999). When president Leola Seals, who had supported the demonstrators, ran for reelection in January 1999, a number of elected officials and NAACP members joined forces to try to vote her out of office. Seals was eventually unseated, but not before a months-long review process threatened to tear the group apart. In the end Minneapolis Deputy Fire Chief Rickie Campbell was installed as president even as several of his allies--including Bearman and Little--were expelled from the NAACP for a year. The pair's expulsion, Bearman says, was another reason fundraising assistance for the lawsuit dried up.

Shulman says the lack of money wasn't a problem for him: He estimates that his firm spent about $100,000 in expenses and put in $1.5 million worth of pro-bono time for the suit. (It also received some cash from the NAACP: Minutes from the group's meetings show several payments to the attorneys, including one for $20,000.) They would have liked to get more money, he concedes, "but you do what you need to do. We took the case and if that meant putting up money and time, that's our commitment."

Nonetheless, Shulman says, he was surprised when support for the case among Minneapolis power brokers evaporated. "Did we embarrass the DFL machine? Yes. Did we embarrass our white liberal friends? Definitely. But where were those friends when we said, 'Hold off on community schools?' The engine for that train was a white, liberal, DFL train. And when we got in front of that train, people really got angry."

 

Doug Mann was at every single one of the school-board protests. Tall, with a shock of fuzzy blond hair, he's a licensed practical nurse with a lifetime membership in the NAACP and a son in the third grade at a Minneapolis public school. Like Evelyn Eubanks, he has kept reams of documents tracing his involvement with the lawsuit. And like Eubanks, he has become convinced that over the years the case drifted away from the interests of the people in whose name it had been filed.

In 1998, Mann says, the Shulmans recruited him and his wife to become plaintiffs in a second educational-adequacy lawsuit, Xiong et al. v. State of Minnesota. (The attorneys say they filed the second suit because they wanted to introduce legal theories that weren't in the first one; some NAACP members privately doubt this, saying that the second suit put the lawyers--and not the civil-rights organization--in control of the process.) A longtime activist who has self-published a series of booklets with titles such as White Supremacy and the Politics of Apartheid in Minnesota, and The Fight Against Urban Cleansing & Gentrification in Minneapolis, Mann was happy to sign up.

But, he says, he soon grew concerned about the attorneys' tactics. They were asking for the moon, he believed, when they demanded that district boundaries be erased across the metro area. "I proposed desegregating Minneapolis schools," says Mann. "I have no problem with community schools so long as the boundaries are drawn in such a way that they not have a racial disparity. You could have a desegregation plan that has some busing, but not massive busing like in the Sixties and Seventies."

Eubanks was developing similar doubts while participating in the meetings about the mediation process. She had no interest in putting her kids on buses to attend suburban schools. "If we can't hold the district we're in accountable," she says, "how are we going to hold a suburban district accountable?"

John Shulman says he understands that some of the parents involved in the suit didn't agree with his legal strategy. But, he insists, history shows that the best way to improve an impoverished urban district is to merge it with its wealthier suburban counterparts. Gary Orfield, a Harvard professor who has studied desegregation, agrees: Based on the experiences of other communities, he says, "a metrowide school district is by far the best solution. [Otherwise] people in more viable neighborhoods simply create islands."

For a while Mann and Eubanks--and, they say, lots of other parents--tried hard to influence the suit's outcome. In late 1998 and early 1999, Eubanks says, the attorneys, parents, and other stakeholders met once a week for two to three hours to discuss the suit's developments. Coupled with weekend retreats, workshops, and protests, the schedule quickly became too much for working parents.

"One thing [John Shulman] said right away was that you could not be a part of the mediation if you didn't come to meetings," Eubanks says, acknowledging that this position made sense to her. It would have been easier to justify making the time, however, if she'd felt that her participation was truly leading somewhere.

"We would brainstorm, and [Shulman] would say we didn't have time for discussion," she says. "We would put things up on the board and he would decide whether to vote them up or down. But you can't have talk of metrowide desegregation and not talk about objections."

True to form, Eubanks complained. And, she says, she was told that if she was unhappy with the process, she could quit. "I had been through this before with the school district," she recalls. "They ask you your opinion, guide you to some narrow options, and then say we supported their decision." In early 1999 she left the mediation team.

Mann was on his way out, too. In an April 1, 1999 letter, Daniel Shulman chastised him for "pursuing objectives that my office considers imprudent." Because of work commitments, the letter noted, Mann hadn't come to meetings of a "mediation team" charged with drawing up a settlement; when the document came out he had "publicly attacked the proposal by disseminating written criticisms." "The Shulmans were so pissed off at me for shooting down their plan," Mann says, they told him they could no longer represent him.

Mann, Eubanks, and other parents didn't abandon the cause entirely. In May 1998 they banded together to form the Minneapolis Parents' Union. Together they continued to attend school-board meetings and voice their frustrations. In 1999 Mann, Eubanks, and fellow union founder Barbara Koch-Smith ran for the school board. All three lost; Eubanks, however, outpolled Republican and Reform candidates in the city's working-class Fifth and Eighth wards.

 

Like most attorneys, Shulman declines to talk about his firm's dealings with its clients. Nor will anyone in an elected position with the NAACP describe the group's relations with its counsel. But numerous people involved with the suit say that by March of last year, the lawyers were acting in a vacuum, and that no one knew who actually spoke for the Minneapolis NAACP.

The confusion reached its apex one Friday in March 1999. While the NAACP's national board was cloistered in a hotel in Washington, D.C., Matt Little held a press conference on the steps of the state capitol. Introducing himself as the chair of the Minneapolis branch's education committee, Little said that the organization would drop the suit if a number of conditions were met. The plaintiffs would be happy, he said, if suburbs were required to let city students enroll in their schools, and if transportation were provided for urban kids to do so.

Little didn't mention Minneapolis's community-schools policy, or his expulsion from the NAACP. By the time he had finished speaking, the group's national board had voted to uphold his removal.

When the local NAACP met a few days later, it was still unclear who was in charge--Seals or Campbell, the president Little and his allies supported. Campbell gamely tried to initiate a conversation about healing, and said that any official business would have to wait until the election dispute had been settled.

Eubanks was sitting in the back of the room. At the time she served on the Minneapolis NAACP's education committee. She was worried, she said, that as the group tore itself apart lawmakers and state officials were making critical decisions about the mediation agenda. The last settlement offer she had seen, she said, was nowhere near adequate.

The proposal offered up a handful of initiatives that were already in the works, such as tinkering with state funding formulas, putting more money into special education and English-language courses for immigrants, and expanding free school breakfasts. The state also volunteered to create "high achievement" programs designed to entice suburban students to Minneapolis--programs it had already pitched to the Legislature. And finally state negotiators offered to consider changing the name of the Department of Children, Families and Learning to "Department of Education, Families and Learning."

"If that's what they're working on at the Legislature, then we're in trouble," Eubanks told her fellow NAACP members. "That document has no teeth. It is very dangerous. We might end up with something that is worse than what we've got now."

By April 1999 the infighting had grown so acrimonious that NAACP national general counsel Dennis Hayes made a trip to Minneapolis. On the day he arrived, he met with a group of individuals whom NAACP members describe as "key players" in a private dining room at the Snoodles restaurant on Nicollet. Some of those who attended the meeting say Hayes was trying to figure out what was going on with the education suit and other projects being undertaken by the splintered branch. After hearing from both warring factions, he assumed control.

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.

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.

Louisville, where the city and suburban public schools were integrated in 1975 by a federal court order, is Orfield's favorite example. "In the early days they connected school desegregation to Section 8 certificates," he explains. "Black families were taken out into white neighborhoods, and the neighborhoods were told that if they integrated, they would get a neighborhood school." The plan worked: Now, Orfield notes, "the institutions there that were initially violently opposed to a metro school district are fighting to keep it."

The Minneapolis deal is "a very modest start on what needed to be done," Orfield adds. "It's too bad that's all that's going to be done for all that effort....Some people say the Minnesota courts would have taken the suit very seriously."

Bearman says she, too, would have liked a settlement that went further. But, she adds, "the reality is that this is as good as it's going to get right now. At least we've got something."

Little concedes that he hasn't kept up on all the details of the settlement, but adds that from what he's heard it sounds "better than nothing." "If nothing else," he says, "it forces the suburban system to think about and make some kind of a move [toward desegregation]." And that, he maintains, will lay the groundwork for the day--he guesses about 2020--when even outlying suburbs have large minority populations: "It's like Joe Louis said: 'You can run, but you can't hide.'"

 

On the evening of April 24, Evelyn Eubanks was racing around her house like a dervish. She'd been trying to get her kids to pick up, put on clean clothes, and get into the car so they could all attend a special NAACP meeting at Sabathani Community Center in south Minneapolis. The membership was supposed to vote on the settlement, and chances were there would be fireworks.

An earlier meeting, held just days after the deal was announced, had dissolved into a shouting match: Half the members present demanded that the organization fire the Shulman firm and reject the proposal. It took a tie-breaking vote by the officer who chaired the meeting to fend off the rebellion.

Tonight, Eubanks figured, would be different. Chapter president Ricky Campbell, absent for months because of illnesses and other obligations, would be there, buttoned into a conservative suit and tie. So would the delegate from the NAACP's national office. And the audience would be packed with members who typically didn't show up for meetings, but who would make a special trip to support the deal.

She had been on the phone, checking to see whether any of her allies--other parents, perhaps some of the disillusioned plaintiffs--would attend. Virtually none of them were planning to come. (Reached a few days earlier, Dang Xiong, the lead plaintiff in the Shulmans' second suit, said he hadn't even heard t hat there was a settlement.) And so, midway through scrambling to make the 6:00 p.m. start time, Eubanks stopped dead in her tracks. "Why bother?" she remembers thinking.

As it turned out, things went pretty much the way Eubanks had guessed. The 100 people at Sabathani listened to an hour's worth of impassioned speeches, some from people who'd never appeared at NAACP meetings before. An elementary school tutor stood up and insisted that her young charges had asked her to come and plead for passage of the negotiated deal. Shulman and Almonor fielded questions. Officials pointed out that no matter how the vote turned out, the NAACP's national board would make the final decision.

As the evening wore on, people who had spoken against the deal in the past started to trickle out of the building. By the time the vote was taken, there were perhaps a dozen critics gathered in the parking lot. The settlement passed with 47 votes in favor, two opposed, and one abstention.

These days Eubanks considers the time she spent on the lawsuit pretty much wasted. When she first got involved, she says, she hoped that the case would address her basic concern that the district had given up on children of color. Perhaps, she figured then, it would push the schools in her neighborhood into adopting a challenging curriculum; guarantee that her kids could bring their textbooks home; and force a return to traditional letter-grade report cards. As it stands, she says, she'll be teaching her kids around the dining-room table for the foreseeable future.

Shulman says he sympathizes with Eubanks's and other parents' disappointment--but, he is quick to add, they may have been naive about what the case could deliver. "The problems are so intractable, the number of parents interacting with the district in an unsatisfactory way so high, you're going to hear dozens, even hundreds of perspectives on inadequacies," he says. "Folks who may support what the lawsuit is about may have an unrealistic expectation about what a lawsuit like this can deliver." At the very least, he says, people disappointed with the suit need to understand that the current settlement won't harm anyone.

Not true, Eubanks counters: In this case, half a loaf is actually worse than none. "He gave credibility to a failing system," she says, rushing to pack up the paper trail on her dining-room floor so she can get to a school-board meeting. Then she stops and smiles.

"John Shulman used us to validate his issues," she says. "But the school board used him to validate theirs."

Show Pages
 
My Voice Nation Help
0 comments
Sort: Newest | Oldest
 

Around The Web

Loading...