POLITICS
12/11/2015 05:03 am ET Updated Dec 11, 2015

One Man's Decades-Long Battle To Eliminate School Segregation

"Segregation is so pernicious, and so pervasive, to do this to children is the worst thing you could do."

Twenty years ago, Daniel Shulman was the attorney in a lawsuit brought against Minnesota for perpetuating racial and socioeconomic segregation in schools. Minnesota was violating the state constitution by allowing groups of students to inhabit separate and inherently unequal schools, according to the lawsuit. A judge ruled in favor of Shulman and the plaintiffs he represented. 

In November, Shulman and his son filed a similar lawsuit in another attempt to desegregate Minnesota's highly divided schools. Since 1995, the problem has only continued, Shulman says. The lawsuit demands that the state take action to remedy this inequality. 

This time, Shulman -- who is representing seven families and a community organization -- is hoping for lasting change. In 1995, after Shulman settled his previous case, Minneapolis public schools created a program that allowed 2,000 low-income kindergarten students to start school in a more affluent, suburban district. But the program did not prompt widespread change.

"We had hoped that that program would be a first step to achieving meaningful desegregation and integration," said Shulman. "Instead, the state didn’t take the second step, the third step or fourth step, they started working backward. Today we have segregation even worse than it was when we brought the first case."

The lawsuit seeks class action status for children in Minneapolis public schools and St. Paul public schools, and names the state of Minnesota and public officials like the governor and education commissioner as defendants. While Shulman specifically avoided taking the case to a federal court because of "changes in law and the character of bench," its specifics could be applicable to many other areas of the country.

Minneapolis and Saint Paul public schools are made up mostly of students of color. On average, students in these districts have lower test scores and graduation rates than students in more affluent, white surrounding districts. 

"Schools within Minnesota concentrate students by poverty and race," says the lawsuit. And while the state "has known for some time of these patterns of segregation and resulting educational outcomes [and] has the capacity and duty to discharge its constitutional obligation to provide plaintiffs with an adequate and equitable education, [it] has failed to do so." 

Representatives for the Minnesota Department of Education and Commissioner of Education Brenda Casellius said they aren't allowed to comment on the suit as named parties. Still, "the Minnesota Department of Education is committed to helping every student achieve academic success," said a representative from the Minnesota Department of Education. 

Schools around the country have become increasingly racially segregated in the past two decades. After a wave of progress in the '70s and '80s, a series of court decisions carved away at this momentum. At the same time, research shows that integrated schools help close the achievement gap.

This file photo shows Thurgood Marshall outside the Supreme Court in Washington. Marshall, the head of the NAACP's legal arm
AP
This file photo shows Thurgood Marshall outside the Supreme Court in Washington. Marshall, the head of the NAACP's legal arm who argued part of the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case against school segregation, went on to become the Supreme Court's first African-American justice in 1967.

Alejandro Cruz-Guzman is one of the plaintiffs in the case. He has five kids, three of whom are still in St. Paul schools (the other two are in college). He wants to see his kids attend integrated schools.

"If our kids go to school with majority of Latino kids, they're living in that same community and have never been exposed to their other communities," said Cruz. "When they get older with jobs and careers, they will have to integrate with those other communities. Why wait for that time?"

"In America, we live in this country, and there's a lot of communities -- not only one community," said Cruz. 

The suit seeks a metro-wide integration plan and says that specific school attendance boundaries have intentionally segregated schools by race and socioeconomic status. 

"Segregation is so pernicious, and so pervasive, to do this to children is the worst thing you could do," said Shulman. "We're talking about a society we all want to have, and it's not the society that’s segregated."

Rebecca Klein covers the challenges faced in school discipline, school segregation, and the achievement gap in K-12 education. In particular, she is drilling down into the programs and innovations that are trying to solve these problems. Tips? Email Rebecca.Klein@huffingtonpost.com.

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