Supreme Court ruling raises issue of ‘resegregation’ in Minnesota schools

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There’s a consensus that integrated schools help close the achievement gap between often-white, rich kids and their poor classmates who are predominantly students of color. But there’s a deep division of thought about how to desegregate schools across the nation.

Seattle and Louisville are among leading school districts who sought to address the problem by quantitatively assigning students to different schools using race as a metric.

Other school districts, including Minneapolis’ and St. Paul’s, have long abandoned requirements to use race as an integration tool and opted for a “voluntary desegregation” — a loose approach to a pressing issue.

But that’s hardly working, thanks in part to racially segregated neighborhoods. Studies show that the state’s school systems are among the worst in terms of racial isolation.

Still, the U.S. Supreme Court, in a 5-4 vote late last month, ruled that using race as a desegregation method in schools is unconstitutional. (Full text of the rule can be found here)

“The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race,” wrote Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. on behalf of the majority.

While the ruling constituted a blow to Seattle and Louisville school districts, it had little or no impact on the Twin Cities’ school districts.

“The [ruling] doesn’t have that big of an impact in our day-to-day work in terms of placing students into schools,” said Jill Cacey, assistant director of a student placement center in the St. Paul Public Schools. “We place students in terms of space, transportation and availability of programs,” she said.

In fact, the decision may have bolstered the two districts’ disinclination to push for integration, said Myron Orfield, director of the University of Minnesota’s Institute on Race and Poverty.

“Minneapolis and St. Paul have long abandoned the values of integration,” he said. “They scaled back efforts to integrate and allowed their schools to resegregate.”

A report he co-authored shows that students of color in Minnesota are more likely to attend segregated schools than they were more than 30 years ago.

Much of that racial divide stems from neighborhoods that are segregated into racial and socioeconomic status, the report shows.

The segregation that has resulted is among the worst examples in the nation, according to another report (PDF) by the Center of the American Experiment, a Minneapolis-based think tank. The individual gap between whites and students of color is nearly the widest in the country, the report shows.

“No racial arrangement can cure the problem as long as we have residential segregation,” said Mitch Pearlstein, founder and president of the think tank, who welcomed the Supreme Court’s decision.

To close the gap between whites and others, which Pearlstein calls “a calamity,” the state would need to supply vouchers to poor students so they can attend private schools, he said. By affording traditionally marginalized students the means to attend the school of their choice, Pearlstein contends that schools will inevitably begin to desegregate.

In its ruling, the Supreme Court stopped short of going completely colorblind, thanks to Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, who wields the swing vote. He dissented from the four conservative justices, who teamed up to embrace a “colorblind Constitution.”

School districts can address the “problem of de facto resegregation in schooling” through “narrowly tailored” programs, Justice Kennedy said.

Experts said what that means is open for interpretation.

The Minnesota Department of Education said it wouldn’t know the local impact of the ruling until its lawyers study it.

Isaac Peterson contributed to this story