When a Suburb Tries to Densify, Forget ‘Minnesota Nice’

Originally published in CityLab on June 21, 2018.
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In late April, some residents of Normandale Lake Estates, an apartment complex in Bloomington, Minnesota, just outside of Minneapolis, received a letter informing them that their leases were being terminated and they’d have to move out by June 1. New owners had recently bought the building and planned to upgrade the units. Existing tenants were told they could prequalify to return, but many suspect the new rents will be higher than they can afford. In the meantime, they’re scrambling to find new places to live.

For some of the displaced Bloomington renters, this isn’t the first time they’ve been forced out of their homes. A little over two years ago, in the nearby suburb of Richfield, new owners purchased an apartment complex called Crossroads at Penn. They renamed it Concierge, renovated the units, and priced out hundreds of families. Some of those Crossroads tenants, like Lisa Jones, who relies on a federal housing voucher for herself and her two grandchildren, and Linda Soderstrom, also on federal housing subsidy, moved from Richfield to the Normandale Lake Estates. Now they’ve been pushed out once more.

“The lack of humanity is deep,” Soderstrom told The Star-Tribune. “It’s really deep.”

After the Crossroads takeover in late 2015, housing activists and community groups across the metropolitan region began meeting regularly to strategize how they could confront the challenges of rising rents and displacement. Soon the Suburban Hennepin Housing Coalition was born—comprised of nearly two dozen community and faith-based groups. Their mission centered on the “the three P’s”—preservation of affordable housing, production of affordable housing, and protection of tenants.

Much of the attention around affordable housing in the U.S. has tended to focus on cities like New York, Boston, San Francisco, and Seattle—densely built urban areas where land for new housing is in short supply. But most Americans live in suburbs, many of which are seeing rapidly increasing poverty and racial diversityHere, the need for affordable housing can be just as acute, but the dynamics of the issue are distinct from the urban version—and, often, more complex.

On the outskirts of the Twin Cities, the housing crisis includes some familiar ingredients—anxieties about race and poverty, debates about density and “neighborhood character.” But here there are also deep divisions between various pro-housing advocacy organizations, as well as big differences between suburbs, depending on their relative affluence.

Hope Melton, a retired urban planner, has lived in the wealthy suburb of Edina for nearly 40 years. Last fall, she invited some neighbors to meet in her living room, to kickstart a conversation about steep local housing prices. They’ve been meeting and growing their group ever since.

“Fifteen or twenty years ago, the affordable housing crisis was mainly hitting poor people,” Melton told CityLab. “Now it’s affecting a much wider swath of people. We’ve really been attracting a lot of seniors in Edina, the older generation is really stepping up.”

Although the Twin Cities have historically been one of the nation’s most affordable places to live, the region has a markedly low rental vacancy rate, meaning there’s high demand for new units and steady pressure on rents. Activists fear that “flipping” affordable units into luxury market-rate apartments will become increasingly common prospects for investors, especially those from out-of-state.

Anne Mavity, the executive director of the Minnesota Housing Partnership, says the region is not building new affordable units at the rate at which presently affordable units are disappearing. Market-rate units that were constructed 35 years ago are generally reasonably priced today simply because they’re and older and not fancy. The term-of-art for these types of units is “NOAH” or “naturally-occurring affordable housing.”

“We’re losing NOAH at a rapid pace,” Mavity said. “And every time a sale happens, the price of the unit is going to go up, the rents will go up. We are increasingly attractive to national investors, and that is not good for our residents.”

To combat some of these trends, the Suburban Hennepin Housing Coalition has been organizing around several key policy areas, namely to add new affordable housing stock, and help tenants fight displacement. In March, for example, the Minneapolis suburb of St. Louis Park passed a first-of-its-kind ordinance requiring new property owners to give low-income tenants 90 days notice to find a new place to live if they’re being priced out, and to pay for tenants’ moving expenses. A similar rule was just introduced to the Bloomington City Council this month, according to the city’s program manager, Bryan Hartman.

Nelima Sitati-Munene, executive director of the African Career Education & Resource, Inc. (ACER), a group focused on organizing the African immigrant community in Minnesota and a member of the Suburban Hennepin Housing Coalition, says they’ve been pushing municipal leaders to no longer “view the landlord as the only stakeholder” in their cities. In her suburb of Brooklyn Park, activists recently succeeded in getting rental affordability requirements included in new multi-family housing developments.

Sitati-Munene says organizing around suburban governments has been both a challenge and opportunity. “The reality is this affordable housing crisis is a new phenomenon for a lot of people,” she said. “And a lot of suburban city councilmembers are part-time. A lot of leaders have been really surprised to learn what’s going on, to hear people’s personal stories.”

Still, the fundamental tensions associated with affordable housing debates in other parts of the country persist here: Many suburbanites are vehemently opposed to changes in local development patterns, especially when the word “density” comes up.

“That’s a very polarizing issue,” said Ricardo Perez, a community developer at the Community Action Partnership of Hennepin County, when I asked him about increasing housing density as a strategy to boost affordability. “I personally leave it to the policy experts to have those conversations amongst themselves. My main focus is on community and to serve those families who are being affected directly by these issues.”

Aaron Berc, a housing organizer with Jewish Community Action and another Suburban Hennepin Housing Coalition leader, was similarly noncommittal on the question of density. “We’re not going to support a project because it’s dense. We’ll support a dense project because it’s affordable,” he said. “Certainly we need more housing—our city needs to go grow. But I would say we need housing that is affordable for the community more than we need more housing.”

These questions around development and density are hardly theoretical abstractions. In March, the city of Minneapolis released a draft comprehensive plan which included a new proposal to upzone neighborhoods so that single-family-homes could be more easily converted into fourplexes, an idea with the strong backing of Minneapolis’s new mayor, Jacob Frey. “Affordable housing is a right,” he tweeted in March. “Addressing our supply—and shortage—is going to be a key part of realizing that right.”

Some groups, like the Defend Glendale Public Housing Coalition, have already come out in strong opposition to the fourplex idea; they argue that relying on market-based solutions will inevitably make things worse for low-income people and increase displacement. The city is accepting public comment on the draft proposal through the end of July.

In Edina, efforts to add more housing have also met stiff resistance. The City Council recently rejected a proposal for a new seven-story building, which would have included 20 percent of its 135 units as affordable. In October the Edina City Council rejected another proposed high-rise condo buildingthis one of 173 new units, with twenty percent of them designated as affordable.

There’s no doubt that height and density are the two issues that have focused people’s minds as we address development, redevelopment and affordable housing,” says Melton. “How would I characterize the conversation? Chaotic, emotional, uninformed.”

The dynamics get more complicated, Melton says, as residents wrestle with complex issues of race and class through the politics of Midwestern cultural norms. “‘Minnesota Nice’ plays into this very much,” she said. “People don’t raise their voice, nobody wants to talk about race, nobody wants to talk about their responsibility historically for what’s happened to people that they don’t want to have in their community.”

Instead, Melton says, her neighbors will “say they don’t want ‘urban’ things, that they don’t want all the noise and diversity and crowding and traffic and all that,” she says. “Those things they regard as negative, and they moved to Edina to escape it.”

Bruce McCarthy, the president of the Lake Cornelia Neighborhood Association in Edina, has said he is “very pro-development” but that “we just want to see it a certain kind of way.” He’s urged his city council to focus on its new comprehensive plan before it approves any new project that requires amending building size requirements.

Yet even among housing activists who might otherwise be on the same side, the issue of racial integration and fair housing can be charged. In 2014, two of the Twin City’s most racially diverse suburbs, Brooklyn Center and Brooklyn Park, filed a federal fair housing complaint against the state, alleging that policymakers had illegally concentrated subsidized housing and poverty in their cities, in defiance of a state law that requires affluent communities to provide their “fair share” of affordable housing. The re-adoption of a “fair system” is a way of ensuring that more subsidized units end up in higher-income areas. The Metropolitan Interfaith Council on Affordable Housing (MICAH), a faith-based housing organization, partnered with the cities on the complaint.

Sue Watlov Phillips, executive director of MICAH, says the Metropolitan Council, a regional government agency charged with enforcing the “fair share” law (among many other municipal duties) has been resistant to their complaint, though HUD is continuing to investigate their grievances.

“We’re not saying anyone needs to move or be forced to move, but we’re saying we want to make sure if you want to move out to another place, you should have affordable housing and opportunity in every community,” she said. “We went from being one of the most integrated metros in the country to one of the most segregated, and a lot of it was because we have designated our resources and policies so housing could only be developed in certain areas.”

But Sitati-Munene of Brooklyn Park’s ACER opposes the fair housing complaint: Her group insists that the working-class suburbs of Brooklyn Park and Brooklyn Center need much more subsidized housing construction, not less.

Despite disagreements over strategy, placement, and scale, the fact that groups in in the Twin Cities metro are even wrestling with these issues puts them ahead of the curve nationally when it comes to organizing the suburbs. And activists acknowledge that the housing issues they’re confronting are not unique to their region.

“After the foreclosure crisis people lost their homes and more people have started to rent,” says Sitati-Munene“Rental markets are flooded, and prices are going up. If other suburbs aren’t dealing with affordable housing issues now, it’s coming.”

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St. Paul Companies Are Spending Their Tax Breaks on Super Bowl Sponsorships. Teachers Are Crying Foul.

Originally published in The Intercept on January 26, 2018.
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With more than a million people headed to the Twin Cities over the next 10 days for the Super Bowl, local corporations, St. Paul school district officials, and civic leaders are bracing for what may be a public relations nightmare: the first teachers strike in St. Paul in over 70 years.

The St. Paul Federation of Teachers, nine months into its contract negotiation, authorized a strike vote for January 31. The move comes amid the union’s unconventional strategy of linking declining school funding to corporate tax cuts and narrowing in on local companies on the Super Bowl Host Committee as a potential source of funding for the cash-strapped school system.

The argument the teachers are making in their contract negotiations is straightforward. Cuts, they say, are not the answer. The school district’s financial situation can never really improve until corporations start paying their fair share. In particular, teachers are focusing on the companies that make up the founding sponsors of the Super Bowl Host Committee – companies the union says have avoided paying $300 million in state income taxes over the last five years alone.

The companies say they have made up for some of that with donations, but the generosity has limits. According to a public records request filed by the teachers union, only seven of the 25 Super Bowl Host Committee founding partners donated to the St. Paul public school district last year – for a total of $1.1 million. All 25 companies, by contrast, paid $1.5 million to be founding Super Bowl partners.

Nick Faber, president of the St. Paul Federation of Teachers, stressed that the 3,700 educators in his union do not want to go strike. What they do want, he said, is to see the school district commit to supporting changes to the state tax code, under which corporations have enjoyed massive breaks in recent decades.

Last March, the St. Paul Public Schools announced that it faced a $27 million budget deficit, necessitating staff and program cuts to a district that had already been slashing art, music, and gym, with nurses, librarians, and social workers in short supply. It’s a familiar, vicious cycle – the state reduces its funding for public schools, which also lose revenue when students leave for charters, and districts suffer even more cuts and budget strain.

Minneesota-executive-total-compensation-1516908237-e1516918770646-1024x623.jpg

December 2017 report: SACKED: How Corporations on the Super Bowl Host Committee Left Minnesota’s Public Schools Underfunded and Under Attack.
Chart: St. Paul Federation of Teachers

The wealthiest Minnesotans have seen their taxes decline over the last four decades. Back in 1977, they paid 18 percent in state income taxes. Over the next 36 years, the legislature reduced that top rate to 7.85 percent. In 2013, the state legislature bumped it back up to 9.5 percent, a move strongly opposed by the state’s influential business leader coalition. With the decline in income taxes has come a drop in real per-pupil state aid, which remains “significantly below” what districts received in 2003. While some of the major local corporations make voluntary philanthropic donations to public schools, the teachers union says those contributions have never come close to the amount the businesses have saved in reduced taxes.

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Chart: North Star Policy Institute

To try and shift the conversation around public education, the St. Paul Federation of Teachers has been highlighting tax havens, loopholes, corporate subsidies, and executive compensation. For example, in a report it published in December, the union noted that 3M – a technology company headquartered in St. Paul – holds $1.4 billion in offshore tax havens, including in places like Hong Kong, Panama, and Switzerland. Likewise, the union said, UnitedHealth keeps over $700 million in overseas havens like Bermuda and the Cayman Islands, citing a 2017 report by the Institution on Taxation and Economic Policy.

Minnesota-income-tax-chart-1516908243-e1516918737197-1024x696.jpg

December 2017 report: SACKED: How Corporations on the Super Bowl Host Committee Left Minnesota’s Public Schools Underfunded and Under Attack.
 Chart: St. Paul Federation of Teachers

Kathryn Wegner, an education studies professor at Carleton College and a parent of a student who attends Groveland Park Elementary in St. Paul, has been active in supporting the union’s efforts to highlight corporate tax avoidance. She has joined teachers for rallies outside of banks downtown and been educating other families and community groups about the fiscal situation.

“At my kid’s school, we lost the kindergarten teacher aides, then a librarian, then the music teacher, and our four kindergarten classes went down to three, bumping up class sizes,” she told The Intercept. “Parents are getting upset and wondering how to make sense of it, and understanding the historical context around corporate tax rates has been really useful to grasp the disinvestment.”

The teachers union has been asking corporate leaders to meet with them since October, and finally last week, they had the chance to sit down with representatives from EcoLab and U.S. Bank. At those meetings, the union asked for the companies’ partnership in pressuring state lawmakers to adequately support public education – specifically the state’s unfunded special education mandates.

“They said no,” said Faber. “The only way the state could really close the gaps would be to tax them more.”

U.S Bank did not return The Intercept’s request for comment.

Mesa Denny, an Ecolab spokesperson, told The Intercept that the company does not consider the situation “to be a dispute,” and it is “merely trying to correct the inaccurate and untrue information” promulgated by the teachers union.

“Ecolab believes that strong public schools are vital to a healthy community, and that’s why we have supported the St. Paul Public School System for more than 30 years,” Denny said. “Over the last five years, the Ecolab Foundation has provided more than $3.6 million to the St. Paul Public Schools, supporting strategic imperatives outlined by the school district leadership. Given that we are headquartered in St. Paul and many of our headquarters employees live in St. Paul, we are happy to devote our foundation dollars to these efforts.”

But those donations, Faber said, are not enough to bridge the school funding gap that was created in part by tax cuts. “Given how much school funding has declined, philanthropy just can’t have a real transformative change when we’re so underfunded on a basic level,” he said. “We can’t just accept little grants from corporations; we have to start thinking differently.”

The teachers want the school district to join them in pressuring local corporations to pay more. So far, they say, district officials have refused. Laurin Cathey, human resources director for St. Paul Public Schools, did not return The Intercept’s request for comment.

To address the budget deficit, the school district has proposed that teachers agree to applying to “Q Comp” – a voluntary state program established in 2005 that theoretically could bring up to $9 million to St. Paul schools. But even if St. Paul did apply, the state already distributes all the money it has allocated for the program, so no money would flow to St. Paul unless the legislature decided to appropriate more money. And even if the state did bump up funding, 22 Minnesota charter schools and school districts are ahead of St. Paul in line for the money.

Tyler Livingston, acting director of school support at the Minnesota Department of Education, told The Intercept that St. Paul would not be allowed to jump ahead of the other districts waiting for money if it applied for Q Comp. “The law says explicitly that applications are treated in the order they’re received,” he said.

The union says it is not holding its breath that the state will increase Q Comp funding, especially not during an election year. “The money just isn’t there,” said Faber, “and even if it were, Minneapolis is a Q Comp district and they have a budget shortfall about the same as ours or greater, so obviously Q Comp isn’t going to really address this problem.”

In addition to corporations, the union wants to see wealthy nonprofits, like local colleges and hospitals, pay their fair share in taxes. According to St. Paul’s mayor, a third of the city’s properties are exempt from property tax.

One option is to establish a so-called Payment in Lieu of Taxes, or PILOT, program – something that exists in more than 200 cities, towns, school districts, and counties across 28 states. PILOTs are essentially initiatives to induce tax-exempt institutions to make voluntary payments to the cities in which they’re based. A civic task force formed last year to explore the idea and released a report in September, emphasizing that PILOTs “cannot – and should not – be viewed as a ‘solution’ to St. Paul’s significant budget gaps or long-term financial challenges.” A representative from Citizens League, the Twin Cities public policy group that published the report, did not return a request for comment.

“It’s really frustrating to our members that while HealthPartners” — a local health care provider and insurance company — “avoids taxes and doesn’t want to talk to us about PILOTs, they’re charging us through the roof for our health insurance,” said Faber.

The potential upcoming teachers strike would be the first since 1946, when the St. Paul Federation of Teachers went on strike for six weeks – the first organized teachers strike in U.S. history. The union also voted to strike in 1989, but ended up reaching a last-minute agreement that mooted the strike.

The St. Paul teachers union is considered among the most progressive teacher locals in the nation. Since 2013, it has joined with other progressive unions to organize under the banner of “Bargaining for the Common Good.” Inspired by the Chicago Teachers Union strike in 2012, unions like St. Paul’s have taken a different approach to their contract negotiations, partnering with local organizations to bring a wider range of community-oriented demands to the bargaining table.

Last spring, the union released a report to evaluate how much progress it had made toward reaching the goals it set for itself in 2013. While highlighting some real accomplishments — including reducing student-teacher ratios for low-income students and expanding full-day pre-K programming — the SPFT acknowledged that without more sources of revenue, it would be impossible to really tackle its agenda.

The report helped form the demands the union has since been pushing for in its contract negotiations. The union’s very first proposal is in line with its pre-Super Bowl campaign: a commitment from the school district to push major local corporations and nonprofits to increase revenue for St. Paul Public Schools and support “changes in state tax policy to make these contributions sustainable over time.”

“We’re hoping to see some movement from the school district so we don’t have to take the next step,” said Faber, meaning the strike. Faber says the district can continue to accept corporate charity, but it needs to push them to also “be better neighbors.”

That’s a very different kind of pressure, he said, “and that’s hard work, but I don’t think we have any other choice.”

The complicated history of America’s first ‘union-backed’ charter authorizer

Originally published in MinnPost on December 21, 2016.
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Despite its name, the Community School of Excellence in St. Paul has not distinguished itself with excellence. Instead, the Hmong-focused charter has become one of Minnesota’s most scandal-ridden schools. Battles between teachers and the administration have been common, with educators repeatedly reporting threats and retaliatory behavior. And since 2012, the school has been found not only to have suppressed multiple reports of suspected child abuse at the urging of its controversial superintendent, but also to have misdirected federal funds for subsidized student lunches — even after receiving a hefty fine for the practice.

Nor has the Community School of Excellence excelled academically. Since its inception, the school has produced poor test score results. In 2016, just a third of its students met state reading standards.

Yet these troubles have not prevented the school’s rapid expansion. When it opened in 2007, the CSE had 176 students; today, it’s one of the largest charter schools in Minnesota, with nearly 1,000 kids enrolled.

After a state investigation and reams of bad publicity — within just a few years the school had been investigated by the FBI, the Minnesota Department of Education, the federal Department of Education, the Department of Agriculture, local law enforcement, and the National Labor Relations Board — the powers-that-be had had enough. When efforts to jettison the school’s superintendent failed, the school’s legal backer abandoned it altogether, a move that could have effectively shuttered the flailing charter.

Instead, something else happened. The Community School of Excellence was bailed out — just hours before it would have been closed permanently — by an unlikely savior: The Minnesota Guild of Public Charter Schools, a nonprofit created by the local teachers union and funded in part by its national parent, the American Federation of Teachers.

A unique law

To understand what a union-backed group was doing rescuing a notorious charter school — and why that was so unusual — you have to dive into the little-noticed world of charter authorizing.

Charters aren’t unregulated, of course, but their monitoring system isn’t well understood, either. Across the country, charter schools are generally overseen by another organization: most often a public school district, but it could also be anything from a university to a state commission. This third party — called an authorizer — grants a charter the right to exist, and in turn, takes over much of the work of ensuring that the school complies with relevant laws and regulations. Authorizers are also tasked with monitoring schools’ academic performance. In theory, if a charter strays too far from the straight and narrow, authorizers are expected to shut it down.

Minnesota, long regarded as a leader in education reform, virtually invented the authorizer system when it opened up the nation’s very first charter school 25 years ago. By the early aughts, however, state officials recognized that they had accumulated an awfully high number of charter authorizers (then referred to as “sponsors”) that were not taking their oversight responsibilities very seriously, a situation that enabled some charter leaders to seek out especially lax authorizers.

In response, in 2009, legislators decided to increase the responsibilities assigned to Minnesota authorizers. When all was said and done, the reforms reduced the number of authorizers in the state from 51 to 13, and education reform advocates took the dramatic drop as an encouraging sign: an indication that bad actors were weeded out, or at least those not serious enough about monitoring school quality.

Greg Richmond, the president of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, says Minnesota’s 2009 reforms were “certainly the most rigorous form of accountability for authorizers that has occurred anywhere in the country, then and today.”

But at the same time that Minnesota cracked down on negligent charter authorizers, state officials opened a new can of worms. Within the same 2009 legislation, lawmakers created what are known as “single-purpose charter authorizers” — unique nonprofits that exist nowhere else in the United States. Only two states, Ohio and Minnesota, currently have nonprofits authorizing charter schools, but these have traditionally been pre-existing entities like universities or social-service organizations.

A “single-purpose charter authorizer” was a new idea: a nonprofit that exists only to open, close, and monitor charters. The thinking was that such an organization could devote all its attention to diligently overseeing charters, thus boosting education quality more broadly.

An unusual alliance

Today, the Minnesota Guild is one of four single-purpose authorizers in the state, though that’s not the only reason it’s unusual. To see why, it’s important to know that teacher unions and charter schools have long had a fraught relationship. Most charter teachers are at-will employees, and the more students that charters attract, the less union jobs are likely to exist at traditional public schools.

And while a growing number of charter school teachers have received support from the labor movement to organize at their schools, teacher unions still generally lobby to limit charter expansion, pointing to negative fiscal impacts they have on traditional public schools, among other things.

The idea for the Minnesota Guild came from Lynn Nordgren and Louise Sundin, two former presidents of the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers, the AFT’s local affiliate. In 2010, they applied for an AFT Innovation Fund grant, money for local unions in pursuit of creative projects. Nordgren and Sundin proposed creating an authorizer that would open schools “in the spirit of Albert Shanker” — the former AFT president who originally propelled charter schools onto the national stage.

Shanker envisioned charters as small, independent schools, where teachers could experiment with new ideas, and bring the most successful ones back into traditional public schools.

At the time, Sundin and Nordgren said their plan would elevate teacher voices and secure unions a seat at the education reform table. An AFT press release called the Guild “a bold and unprecedented opportunity for teachers to approve charters.” Writing in the Star Tribune, Nordgren said it would “approve new, high-quality schools” and ensure that teachers “are respected and have a voice.” Arguing that unions want and need to be part of the charter school conversation, Nordgren stressed the Guild would “accelerate the oft-delayed process of opening schools that aim to close the achievement gap.”

In late 2011, the Guild was officially approved as a single-purpose charter authorizer, the new type of overseer the State of Minnesota had approved two years before. In its formal application to the state, the Guild pledged to open 35 charters during its first five years. 

A complicated relationship

It didn’t work out that way. The Guild was slow to get started, and two years in it had zero schools in its portfolio. Now, though, the Guild is opening new charters and taking over existing charters at a much more rapid clip. It is now the authorizer for 11 charter schools, five of which came under its control this fall. Eleven more are in the pipeline, and the organization says it’s still committed to its original plan of authorizing a total of 35 schools.

Though one might expect a union-backed authorizer to oversee a bunch of unionized charters, especially given its public comments at the time of its inception, that’s not the case. The Community School of Excellence is actually the only Guild charter school to have a union, and it was organized in 2014, two years before coming under the Guild’s auspices.

That made more sense after talking to Brad Blue, who has served as the Guild’s director since its inception. Blue is an eclectic figure: He’s played professional hockey, owns a farm, holds a Ph.D. in artificial intelligence — and, as it turns out, isn’t really so jazzed about unions. In fact, he goes to great lengths to emphasize how neutral he is on the subject. “We don’t work directly, or even indirectly, with unions, or locals,” he said. “We’re neutral about that — we’re neither for unions, nor against. It’s a school’s decision.”

Over the years, many have wondered if the Guild represents a subversive attempt to unionize charters. After all, one of its unique aspects is that it requires employers to stay neutral if teachers decide to launch an organizing drive. But Blue flatly rejects that notion. “How many Guild schools are even unionized?” Blue says. “Only one, and they just transferred in July. For us it’s a really moot point.”

For the past five years, the AFT has given the Guild roughly $500,000 in total grants. But when AFT representatives were asked if they thought it was an issue that so few of the Guild’s schools were unionized, officials said they weren’t worried, noting that charter teachers overseen by the Guild are well positioned to move forward with union campaigns. “There’s no way to wave the wand and make a union happen,” says Mary Cathryn Ricker, the AFT’s executive vice president. “There were no hard deadlines [for organizing unions]. It was more aspirational.”

Ricker also seemed unconcerned about Blue’s remarks regarding unions at the Guild’s schools. “The Guild has to approach authorizing with integrity,” she says. “If you look at the original purpose of the Guild, and the authorizing agreement, there is an effort to deliberately recognize the rights of workers to organize in their workplace. At the same time, the Guild cannot both authorize and organize them. At the end of the day, the organizing itself is our responsibility as current union members.”

Given the unprecedented nature of an authorizer like The Minnesota Guild, I asked Greg Richmond, the president of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, if he thought it would violate authorizer norms if the Guild were openly pro-union. “I think it’s more than fine. It’s even good,” Richmond answered, noting that one of the benefits of having multiple charter authorizers in a state is precisely so they can encourage different types of schools.

Locally, the Guild has gained notoriety among traditional public school teachers, many of whom consider the schools it authorizes to be in direct competition with their own schools. Robert Panning-Miller, a 25-year veteran teacher of the Minneapolis public schools and a former MFT president, says there was absolutely no debate or discussion among rank-and-file members about whether their union should back a charter authorizer.

“The first time I learned our union planned to authorize charter schools was when Lynn Nordgren announced it in the Star Tribune,” echoes Valerie Olsen-Rittler, a high school social studies teacher who has been working in Minneapolis for 27 years. She now serves on the MFT executive board, and tries to find ways to protest the Guild’s activities.

Panning-Miller, Olsen-Rittler, and several others I spoke with told me emphatically that their local union has not invested time in organizing the Guild’s charter schools. The current president of the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers, Michelle Wiese, did not return multiple requests for comment.

For the Guild’s first several years of existence, the MFT provided the group office space, free of charge. “Those of us who are MFT members had no say in the creation of the Guild, and now we continue to subsidize our own demise,” Panning-Miller wrote in the winter of 2015. (The MFT voted to have the Guild leave its building before the start of the 2015-16 school year.)

Some members have also raised concerns about potential conflicts of interests between the Guild and the union. For a while, Lynn Nordgren was both the MFT’s president and a Minnesota Guild board member. Louise Sundin still serves as the MFT’s lobbyist in addition to being a Guild board member. Panning-Miller has floated the idea of taking legal action, saying that a union leader supporting the creation of nonunion schools should be seen as a violation of their fiduciary obligations.

From the ‘spirit of Albert Shanker’ to ‘financial pragmatism’

In theory, single-purpose authorizers are supposed to be better able to devote their attention to regulating and monitoring the charter schools under their purview. As Nordgren wrote when the Guild was founded, “In order to receive this approval, the Guild had to meet very high standards, established in Minnesota in 2009, that require authorizers to adhere to national standards for charter school oversight and quality.”

Yet unlike traditional nonprofit organizations that authorize charters, single-purpose authorizers are limited in their ability to fundraise. Aside from grants, they can only raise revenue from authorizing fees, which are paid by the schools being authorized on a per-student basis. In other words, if a single-purpose charter authorizer closes down a school, or turns down an authorizer-seeking charter school, it would be directly harming its own bottom line.

Blue, for one, has been upfront about the reason for the Guild’s ambitious goal of overseeing 35 charter schools: financial pragmatism. “We need to build a portfolio of schools that’s substantial enough for our expenses,” he says.

Blue says those expenses currently include office space, contractors to help review charter applications and monitor schools, an employee who manages the Guild’s projects and portfolio, and a web-based tool for authorizers, Epicenter. Those expenses also include Blue’s salary. In 2013 — before the Guild authorized any schools — he took home $110,000 in compensation from the organization, 72 percent of the Guild’s overall expenses that year. In 2014, the organization raised his pay to $128,000.

Yet Blue’s responsibilities with the Guild have not prevented him from serving in other positions in the charter sector. In 2013, in addition to serving as the Guild’s director, he founded a St. Paul charter school, where he was paid $33,000 in 2014. Tax forms also stated that Blue worked 40-hours per week for each organization. (The school, Upper Mississippi Academy, is not authorized by the Guild.) He has since left that school to found another charter, which will open in the fall of 2017.

“I’m a Canadian, I’m a social welfare guy at heart. I’m also a capitalist, which is why I live in America,” Blue tells me.

Performance issues

Often lost in the Guild’s complicated history is a fundamental question: How are its schools actually doing?

Five years ago, the union insisted the venture would enable it to open up high-performing charters that help close the achievement gap. Or as Nordgren wrote in the Star Tribune: “The Guild will ensure applicants’ proposals include a clear mission, detailed curriculum, high student achievement benchmarks, healthy governance and sound finances.”

In its drive to add schools to its portfolio, however, the Guild has become the authorizer of some of the worst achieving charters in Minnesota. Take the Augsburg Fairview Academy, a charter school that opened in 2005, and that the Guild added to its portfolio this past summer. According to state data, just 5 percent of the school’s students tested proficiently in math in 2016. Or College Prep Elementary, where just 17 percent of students met state reading standards, compared to 60 percent statewide. The state found 26 percent of College Prep Elementary students were on track for math success this past year, down from nearly 50 percent in 2012. Or Lincoln International High School, where just 2.7 percent of students met math standards in 2016, and 6 percent met reading standards.

And while it’s possible that these schools will improve under the Guild’s stewardship, the odds are against it. The National Association of Charter School Authorizers discourages authorizers from taking over low-performing charters, as there’s very little evidence to suggest that new authorizers can turn them around. In fact, such takeovers tend to help poor charters avoid closure and accountability, the very thing single-purpose authorizers were designed to curtail when the law was passed seven years ago.

If the Guild meets its goal of opening 35 charter schools, it would become one of the largest authorizers in the state, though there does remain one possible obstacle. Every five years, Minnesota officials are required to review the performance of charter authorizers, and the state’s evaluation of the Guild is set to be issued by the end of January.

It’s highly unlikely that the Guild won’t pass that evaluation, given the way those reviews are conducted. So far, most authorizers have passed, even if they receive low scores on important metrics, like their criteria for opening or closing a school.

And with each new school that it authorizes, the Guild becomes less financially dependent on the AFT; its most recent grant from the union was for just $50,000, as the Guild now earns sufficient revenue on its own through authorizing fees.

The irony underlying the country’s first “union-backed” charter authorizer is that it soon may not be backed by, or accountable to, any union at all.

Teacher Unions Are ‘Bargaining for the Common Good’

Originally published in The American Prospect on June 16, 2016.
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This week, the Los Angeles school board voted to approve a new bargaining agreement with UTLA, the city’s teachers union. Local community organizations—like Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy, Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment, InnerCity Struggle, and the Advancement Project—hailed the “groundbreaking” agreement for directing more resources towards students in high-needs schools. Some specific items UTLA bargained for included hiring a Pupil Services and Attendance counselor for high-poverty high schools, and hiring a new teacher for the 55 most needy elementary schools in order to reduce class size. Union members voted overwhelmingly in support of this new contract a week earlier.

“We commend UTLA’s innovative leadership in leveraging its bargaining power to deliver real and impactful investments for low income communities of color,” said John Kim, the Advancement Project’s executive director, in a statement.

UTLA’s president, Alex Caputo-Pearl, said in an interview that his union sees collective bargaining as an important tool available to fight for equity and justice. “A lot of people consider teacher union contract negotiations to be about narrower issues like salaries, benefits, and work rules—and all of those are important and we deal with those—but we’re using these agreements to expand what the union goes to the table for.” Caputo-Pearl says UTLA can ultimately be a vehicle to push for collaborative policy alongside community organizations. “We’re bargaining for the common good,” he declared.

This idea of “bargaining for the common good”—and working in partnership with local allies—is not a new idea for labor unions, but its potential has never been fully realized, and past efforts have not gone deep enough. One major obstacle has been that labor law tries to limit unions to bargaining just over issues of wages and benefits.

“Unions have been significantly hobbled by the legal regime, and a lack of imagination to challenge it,” says Stephen Lerner, a longtime labor organizer.

But now, partly because of the historic action the Chicago Teachers Union took in 2012, when its members went on strike not just for themselves, but also for increased public services for the broader community, more and more unions have started to reconsider their fundamental roles and responsibilities. By expanding their bargaining demands beyond wages and benefits, unions are recognizing that they can more fully support, and engage their community partners—and get those community groups to support them in return.

“I think there’s a growing feeling that if you operate within the confines of the law, you restrict the things that potentially give you power,” says Lerner. “We have to be willing to go beyond what the law allows.”

In 2014, leaders from public sector unions and community organizations gathered at Georgetown University for a national conference, entitled “Bargaining for the Common Good,” aimed at charting this new path forward. Writing in Dissent, Joseph A. McCartin, the director of the Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor at Georgetown, said that three distinct priorities emerged from the proceedings: using the bargaining process as a way to challenge the relationships between government and the private-sector; working with community allies to create new, shared goals that help advance both worker and citizen power; and recognizing militancy and collective action will likely be necessary if workers and citizens are to reduce inequality and strengthen democracy.

The time had come, in sum, to politicize bargaining.

A burst of activity followed the Georgetown conference. “It’s been amazing to see how many unions, community groups, and people have adopted the ‘bargaining for common good’ frame and language,” says Lerner.

This past December in Minneapolis, a coalition of unions and community groups brought 2,000 people together to craft a collective agenda for social justice. “Participants highlighted the immense control wielded by a dozen huge corporations, including U.S. Bank, Target, and Wells Fargo, over Minnesota’s economy,” wrote McCartin, and “agreed to collaborate on an array of interlocking campaigns and direct actions in 2016.” Since then, the groups have already successfully pushed for paid sick leave in Minneapolis, and similar ordinances are on the horizon in Saint Paul and Duluth. Groups that can endorse candidates are also working together “with an eye toward building independent political power and wielding greater influence in state elections,” says Dan McGrath of TakeAction Minnesota.

Last summer in Seattle, teachers went on strike for five days—their first strike against the district in 30 years—winning not only cost-of-living increases, but also a guarantee for daily recess for all elementary school students, and the creation of “equity committees” to address the disproportionate discipline of black and brown students.

In Saint Paul, the teachers union began to rethink collective bargaining as far back as 2013, convening regular meetings with parents and community members to formulate a shared vision. When the school district refused to negotiate with the union over their community-driven proposals, insisting that teachers could only bargain on matters related to wages and benefits, the union stood its ground.

Teachers held “walk-ins,” launched social media campaigns, and threatened to go on strike. In the end, teachers won expanded preschool programming, reduced class sizes, reduced testing, and established more equitable access to nurses, librarians, counselors, and social workers. “I had negotiated almost a dozen previous contracts for the [union],” said Mary Cathryn Ricker, the former Saint Paul teachers union president. “But, for the first time, I felt that signing a contract was just one step in building a larger movement.”

Ricker now serves as executive vice-president for the American Federation of Teachers, but the work she started in Saint Paul continues. This year the union negotiated a new contract, filled with more community-oriented provisions, such as increased funding for alternatives to punitive discipline policies.

“For too many years we just dealt with the problems we saw from within the walls of our classroom, but now we understand that our contract is the most powerful document we have to improve the learning conditions for our students,” says Denise Rodriguez, the current Saint Paul local president, in an interview.

Caputo-Pearl cites the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools, a network that formed in 2014 comprising ten national organizations, including the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association, as a key factor helping to drive this labor shift. “They’ve helped us reframe the conversation around bargaining and move this process forward,” he says.

Indeed, the effort is growing.

Last month, the NEA and the Center for Innovation in Worker Organization at Rutgers organized a two-day conference for teacher union locals across the Northeast region, focused on bargaining for the common good. It was the first geographic gathering of its kind. Participants explored how to bargain for issues like adequate nutrition for children, strong public libraries, longer recess, and smaller class sizes. A host of community organizations came, as well as representatives from the Seattle and Chicago teachers locals, who spoke about their own “common good” organizing.

“The members loved hearing about unions being on the offense, rather than the defense,” says Lerner.

“We offered locals a chance to think more deeply about their upcoming contract negotiations,” says Secky Fascione, NEA’s director of organizing. “We’re really watching these ‘a ha’ light bulb moments happen for members when they realize that bargaining can once again be a powerful tool for the issues most prevalent in our lives.”

On the state of school integration discussions

Originally published in The American Prospect on February 11, 2016.
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Yesterday the Albert Shanker Institute, a think tank affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), hosted a panel discussion on school and housing segregation. Featuring Kimberly Goyette, a sociologist at Temple University, Amy Ellen Schwartz, an economist at NYU, Amy Stuart Wells, a sociologist at Columbia, and Richard Rothstein, a research associate at the Economic Policy Institute and former New York Times education columnist—the four speakers explored how best to provide children and families with opportunity.

The panel came on the heels of a few recent school integration developments. First, the Obama administration just released its 2017 budget, calling for $120 million to fund voluntary socioeconomic integration of schools. (Though largely symbolic,national advocates were enthusiastic, as it would more than double current levels of federal funding.) Second, the Century Foundation just released two new reports showing that the number of school districts and charter schools embracing voluntary integration has more than doubled in the past decade. (It’s still a small percentage, though.) And lastly, historian Matthew Delmont has just written a provocative book, Why Busing Failed, which challenges mainstream assumptions about “forced busing” as a tool for desegregation.

Yet despite increased attention, it’s evident that the school integration conversation suffers from a few problems. In many respects, people are talking past one another, disagree on basic terms and definitions, and have strongly different ideas about what the problems even are, let alone what the optimal policy solutions should be.

Are integrated schools something everyone should have, or should we just design “diverse schools” for parents and families who actively seek that? Are we pushing for integration because there’s a particular moral imperative, or has research demonstrated it improves student academic achievement? Are schools with high concentrations of racial minorities considered segregated if families choose to send their children to them? How should we be thinking about the rise of largely white charter schools? Do we talk about racism? Socioeconomic status? The Constitution?

On the panel, Richard Rothstein argued that the country has a long way to go in terms of fulfilling its constitutional obligation to desegregate schools—and that the first step must involve launching a national education campaign so that the public, and progressives in particular, can better understand their history. He called de facto segregation “a national myth”—one that allows Americans to sleep easy in the face of illegal discrimination.

“We have to get serious about desegregating the country, and I don’t just mean desegregating low-income families,” he said. “I mean lower-middle class areas too. We need a fundamental rethinking about our priorities.” Rothstein walked through the history of government-sponsored housing segregation, specifically looking at Ferguson, Missouri, which he’s also written about at length for The American Prospect.

Others were less impressed with his vision. Amy Ellen Schwartz quickly dismissed Rothstein’s ideas, and went on to list various strategies that advocates can employ right now to meet kids where they are. She touted school choice and expanding summer youth employment programs, and in general “strengthening all neighborhoods.” She didn’t spend much time exploring how past efforts at revitalizing poor black communities have worked out, however.

Amy Stuart Wells, a co-author of one of the Century Foundation’s recent reports, noted that one reason to be optimistic is that millennials have more racially tolerant attitudes. Several audience members I spoke with following the event expressed similar hopes. But according to the data, this doesn’t really seem to be true.

And even if it were true, even if surveys did show that millennials have less racist attitudes than previous generations, it’s likely that school segregation would still persist. Parents rely on racial composition as a signaling tool—those schools with higher concentrations of racial minorities tend to have fewer resources and suffer from more difficult challenges, like concentrated poverty. If parents want to provide their kid with the most opportunity, as most parents do, then even a white family fighting for the Black Lives Matter movement would be unlikely to send their child to a school in the ghetto, if they can avoid it. This is why, as Kimberly Goyette suggested, it’s hard to have integrated schools without integrated neighborhoods.

It’s a great thing to see a renewed national discussion around school integration. In a recent interview, former Education Secretary Arne Duncan admitted he would “give himself a low grade” on school desegregation, and said the country “can and should do more” on that front. Duncan’s successor, John King, has also signaled that he plans to prioritize racial and economic integration more on the federal level. “Research shows that one of the best things we can do for all children—black or white, rich or poor—is give them a chance to attend strong, socioeconomically diverse schools,” King said in a speech last month.

It’ll be interesting to see where this all leads. A few weeks ago I reported on a groundbreaking lawsuit in Minnesota—where lawyers are suing the state for allowing segregated schools to proliferate in the Twin Cities. It’s a controversial case, and one that specifically threatens the existence of publicly funded charter schools that cater to high concentrations of racial and ethnic minorities. It has divided the civil rights community, and sparked debates about segregated schooling in the 21st century, particularly within the era of school choice.

Sixty years after Brown v. Board of Education, our neighborhoods and schools are still deeply segregated; we rarely stop to talk about them, save for widely publicized crises, like the death of Baltimore’s Freddie Gray or the water scandal in Flint, Michigan. So bring on the debates, the reports, the panels, and the national discussion. These are all long, long overdue.

School Desegregation Lawsuit Threatens Charters

Originally published in The American Prospect on January 26, 2015.
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Alex Cruz-Guzman, who came to the United States from Mexico as a teenager, lives in a poor, minority neighborhood in St. Paul, Minnesota. Determined to provide his five children with a quality education, he and his wife were able to send their two oldest daughters—who are now in college—to desegregated St. Paul schools. But it’s become more difficult to find such schools in St. Paul today, and the Cruz-Guzmans were told they would likely be unable to send their three younger children to integrated institutions, even when they offered to transport their kids themselves.

So Cruz-Guzman became a plaintiff in a lawsuit—one that may shape the future of American education. Filed against the state of Minnesota by two veteran civil rights attorneys, Daniel Shulman and his son John Shulman, the suit accuses the state of allowing schools with high concentrations of poor and minority students to proliferate. A 2015 Minneapolis Star Tribune analysis found that elementary school students in the Twin Cities attend more racially segregated schools than they have in a generation. Children who attend such schools, the lawyers argue, achieve far less than their peers in integrated institutions. The lawyers also say that the growth of charter schools, which are even more racially segregated than traditional public schools, have exacerbated these trends.

The Shulmans are seeking a metro-wide integration plan to satisfy what they argue is the state’s constitutional obligation to prevent segregated schooling. They cite the state constitution’s education clause, equal protection clause, due process clause, and the Minnesota Human Rights Act to make their case.

Not everyone agrees that this kind of integration is legally necessary or the best way to meet children’s needs. Some see the suit as a threat to parents’ right to choose the schools that would best serve their children. This is particularly true for parents of color, who sometimes send their children to charters in the hopes of avoiding what they see as hostile traditional schools.

John Cairns, one of the most experienced charter school attorneys in the nation, is working against the lawsuit. “If the state is going to do anything, then they’d have to attack parental choice,” says Cairns. “While the plaintiffs are inexplicit about what their remedy would be, in our view, they’re explicit that their remedy would address charter school enrollments. The only way they could do that is to have some conclusion that parental choice is unconstitutional.”

Daniel Shulman sees in this argument an echo of Plessy v. Ferguson. He thinks charter school advocates are arguing, in effect, that separate schools can be equal. “We don’t think that’s true or the law. If they follow the law, they’ll say separate is not equal, and not equal is inadequate,” he says. “All the data will support that … test scores, graduation
rates. School segregation is a national tragedy and disgrace.”


It’s fitting that this fight would take
 place in Minnesota
, which is both the birthplace of the charter school movement, and a longtime champion of civil rights.

Minneapolis enacted the nation’s first fair housing and fair employment ordinances, and Minnesota passed one of the first state laws banning housing discrimination. In 1948, it was an impassioned speech to the Democratic National Convention by Minneapolis Mayor Hubert Humphrey that led the Democratic Party to pass its first civil rights platform plank. In the early 1970s, under a court order, Minneapolis moved to integrate its public schools. This prompted the state to issue desegregation rules applicable to schools across the state. By the early 1990s, Minneapolis and St. Paul had not a single racially segregated school, and the Twin Cities metropolitan area was one of the most desegregated regions in the United States.

“We had no segregated schools because we had strong civil rights laws and we enforced them,” says Myron Orfield, a law professor at the University of Minnesota and the director of its Institute on Metropolitan Opportunity.

Today, the educational landscape looks quite different. While the number of people of color living in the Twin Cities metropolitan region—defined as Minneapolis, St. Paul, and the surrounding suburbs—has increased considerably over the past two decades, integration advocates say that demographic shifts alone are insufficient to explain the growth of segregated schooling in Minnesota.

And grown it has. Since 2000, the number of elementary schools in St. Paul educating more than 90 percent students of color grew from 2 to 18, while the overall percentage of students of color in the district rose only 11 percent. Similar shifts occurred in Minneapolis. In 1995, the Minneapolis School District was 63 percent nonwhite, but had only two elementary schools that were 90 percent segregated. Today the district has 13 such elementary schools, and 26 percent of district students attend schools with over 90 percent students of color.

MPS SPPS demograpic change chart FIXED.png

The demographics of the 164 charter schools in Minnesota—which roughly 50,000 students attend—have also impelled the state to argue, for the first time, that charters should no longer be exempt from state integration laws. (An administrative judge will rule on this separate dispute in late February.)

The resegregation of the region’s schools, critics say, was the product not just of demographic change but also of conservative pressure in the 1990s to weaken desegregation mandates, coupled with the rise of a charter sector that targeted specific races and ethnicities, thereby accelerating the isolation of poor and minority students. The growth of charter schools, they add, also created new opportunities for white children to congregate in separate schools. Charters attended by predominately white students grew by 40 percent between the 2007-08 school year and the 2012-13 one. Researchers found that more than half of these white charters are located in attendance zones with racially diverse traditional schools.

Opponents of the state’s proposal, and of the Shulmans’ lawsuit, argue that their proponents—state officials, Myron Orfield, and his allies—misapply the label of  “segregation” when talking about charter schools. “I find it offensive and insulting to compare parents of color making choices to send their kids to schools that are better addressing the academic needs of their kids with segregation, a system that was set up by white supremacists decades ago to force students of color to inferior schools,” testified Alberto Monserrate, the first Latino ever elected to the Minneapolis School Board, in early January.

Whether or not one thinks these schools should be considered segregated, the rise of schools with high concentrations of racial minorities—both in traditional schools and in charters—means an increase in the number of schools serving high concentrations of poor students. Researchers at the Institute on Metropolitan Opportunity find the poverty rate at Twin Cities minority-segregated schools to be two-and-a-half times greater than the poverty rate at integrated schools, and five times greater than the poverty rate at predominantly white schools. They also find that math and reading test scores for black students at highly segregated schools are lower than test scores for black students at less segregated schools. Suspension rates, too, are substantially higher in racially segregated elementary schools than in less segregated ones.

IMO.png

“Yes, there’s a difference between segregation that’s imposed by the state versus segregation that is through choice, the first is worse than the second,” says Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation and a longtime researcher of school integration. “However, the negative effects of concentrated poverty obtain even when concentrated poverty is a matter of constrained choice.”

 

This is not Daniel Shulman’s first time filing a school segregation lawsuit against the state. In 1995, Shulman sued Minnesota, arguing that segregated schools in the Twin Cities metropolitan area violated both the state and federal constitutions. The case settled five years later, and as part of the settlement, Minnesota established a voluntary integration program between Minneapolis and ten neighboring suburban districts. Most participants were poor minority students who enrolled in predominately white suburban schools.

“But the segregation in Minneapolis and St. Paul is worse today than when I started the first case 20 years ago,” says Shulman. “That’s why I brought the case again, and I’m sorry I waited this long to do it.”

Shulman’s legal strategy rests on a theory that, at this point, is still very much untested. In the past few decades, it’s become increasingly difficult for civil rights advocates to win federal school desegregation lawsuits. Following the 1978 Supreme Court case Milliken v. Bradley, courts began to draw sharper distinctions between de jure and de facto segregation; the Supreme Court said unless it could be shown that a district deliberately sought to discriminate against students by race, it could not be held responsible for school segregation.

“Federal desegregation rulings are about racial discrimination, which looks at intent to discriminate,” says Derek Black, a professor at the University of South Carolina School of Law, who studies education law and policy. “Since the 1980s and 1990s, it’s become more and more difficult to prove intent, which means more and more districts have been released from their desegregation obligations.”

By suing the state, rather than the federal government, the Shulmans aim to bypass all those sticky questions about intent. “What they’re saying is that the actual existence of segregated schools creates an educational harm, and the state ought to correct that harm, regardless of why it came about,” explains Black.

Their strategy has been tried once before, in a 1989 Connecticut lawsuit known as Sheff v. O’Neill. The plaintiffs argued their constitutional rights were violated because the concentration of African-American students in a particular district was a violation of the state’s right to equal education.

The case made its way up to the state Supreme Court, and in 1996, the justices ruled that Connecticut had an affirmative obligation to provide its students with equal educational opportunity. This constitutional right, they concluded, necessitated providing students with integrated educations, and so the state moved to establish an array of voluntary integration options.

Though Sheff is not controlling law in Minnesota, it is expected that Minnesota judges would consider it if they adjudicate the Shulmans’ suit. “I think the more courts that say an idea is a good one, the more likely it is that courts that follow after them will agree,” says Black, pointing to school funding lawsuits as an example. However, Sheff was notably litigated before the rise of charter schools.

In 1993, Minnesota’s Supreme Court ruled that all students are guaranteed a fundamental right to an adequate education. In their new suit, the Shulmans seek to argue that no education could possibly satisfy the state’s adequacy requirement given the highly segregated environments.

Lawsuit opponents argue that “adequacy” should be measured not by the composition of student bodies, but by demonstrated achievement. “What we’re saying is the first thing to look at is whether kids are learning, not who is sitting in the classroom,” says Cairns, the attorney representing the charters. “And once you establish that kids are learning, then that’s the measure of an effective and adequate education.”

Derek Black says most states do consider achievement “outputs” when determining whether students are receiving adequate educations. Such outputs could be scores on standardized tests, graduation rates, or college readiness measures. Though variance exists from state to state, Black says most courts would look at both outputs and inputs. “The question would be whether the failure to provide certain inputs is the cause of an inadequate education, as measured by various outputs,” he says. If Minnesota’s judiciary takes up this groundbreaking case, they will have to decide whether racially and economically integrated schools are necessary inputs.

“I think there’s an increasing recognition that equal education is the constitutional responsibility of state governments, and therefore [states] have to promote policies to avoid racial and economic segregation,” says Phil Tegeler, the executive director of the Poverty & Race Research Action Council, and a leader in the National Coalition on School Diversity. Tegeler hopes lawyers in other states will follow the Shulmans’ lead. “We really need to see more creative, affirmative litigation,” he says.

“This is huge, you could potentially have 50 state lawsuits on this issue,” says Kahlenberg.

Opponents of the lawsuit, and of the state’s plan to include charters under statewide integration rules, say that there’s been a fundamental misinterpretation of what segregation is. They deny that charter schools targeting specific races or ethnicities are illegal or unjust. Rather, they say, these schools provide students with “culturally affirming” environments in which to learn.

Bill Wilson founded one such “culturally affirming” charter in St. Paul—known as Higher Ground Academy. Though Higher Ground’s student body is more than 90 percent East African immigrant and low-income, it’s one of the highest performing schools in the region. Advocates say the school’s success is due to its unique, and culturally sensitive education strategies. “I know people who brought this lawsuit against the state use the word ‘desegregation’ but let’s find the intentional action,” Wilson says. “I won’t call this segregation, I won’t call it racial isolation, because it’s not true.”

“It’s a false analysis that’s being applied to culturally specific charter schools, that tends to consider those schools to be segregated,” testified Nakima Levy-Pounds, the president of the Minneapolis NAACP chapter. “That flies in the face of civil rights history and also the fact that we have historically black colleges and universities around the country that are specifically designed to affirm, enrich, and enhance the educational experiences of African-Americans who we know have faced historical discrimination throughout our time in this country.”

Darrick Hamilton, an urban policy professor at The New School, says his research suggests there certainly could be instances where predominately black schools may be better learning environments for black students. Quoting W.E.B. Du Bois, he says, “The Negro needs neither segregated schools nor mixed schools. What he needs is Education.”

Even among those in the Twin Cities who advocate for integration, the civil rights community remains torn over how to think about charter schools.While the St. Paul NAACP welcomes the Shulmans’ new lawsuit, for example, its leaders have not taken a position on their charter school argument, or on whether charters should be exempt from statewide integration laws.

“It’s hard enough to get a broad coalition of people to say we want to integrate the schools, and when you add the charter school issue, the politics just become much more challenging,” says one Twin Cities civil rights leader. “There are definitely some advocates who say we should focus on desegregating the traditional schools, and if the districts can get their act together then demand for charters will [naturally] go down, because parents will trust that traditional schools can take care of their kids.”

But researchers at the Institute on Metropolitan Opportunity say that segregated charter schools perform even worse than segregated traditional schools. With the exception of a few high performing networks—including Bill Wilson’s Higher Ground Academy—they find that most charter schools that serve high concentrations of impoverished racial minorities produce poorer academic results than traditional schools, even after controlling for variables like poverty and race. The Minnesota Star Tribune also found that slightly more than half of all students in Minnesota charter schools were proficient in reading, compared to 72 percent in traditional public schools.

Defenders of “culturally-affirming” institutions don’t spend much time talking about white charter schools. Yet white charters are on the rise.

“One of the problems with allowing culturally-focused schools to become single-race enclaves is that, once you create a legal justification for these schools, it becomes very difficult to prevent white parents from adopting the same language to create white segregation,” says Will Stancil, an attorney with the Institute on Metropolitan Opportunity. “Integration isn’t about exposing kids to some magic aura of whiteness, it’s about the importance of universal inclusion in education: providing all children full access to the teaching, resources, and networks that the most privileged kids currently have.”

IMO Charters.png

Those who do support including charters in the lawsuit and under statewide integration rules point to a “Dear Colleague” letter that former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan sent around in 2014. Duncan’s federal guidance said charters must be included in court-mandated or state-administered desegregation plans.

“You just can’t exempt charter schools from the basic civil rights laws of the state, they’re supposed to be publicly funded public schools, and they should be subject to the same civil rights requirements as other public schools,” says Phil Tegeler. Myron Orfield says Minnesota is the only state that he knows of that explicitly exempts charters from its civil rights laws.

The rhetoric surrounding these legal battles will likely grow even more charged in the coming weeks and months. By the end of February an administrative law judge should make her final decision on whether charters will be exempt from statewide integration rules. However, if the Shulmans ultimately win their lawsuit, some say this could render any charter school exemptions moot.

“I think ultimately the lawsuit could trump the rule,” says Derek Black. “It could require the state to do a whole variety of things.

Daniel Shulman isn’t worried about what the judge will decide with regards to charters and the state rule. “It would be nice if there were a rule that effectively desegregated Minnesota’s schools—that’s one way the state could begin to remedy the result of its past constitutional violations,” he says. “But this rule is not going to effect the lawsuit.”

The state of Minnesota has filed to dismiss Shulman’s lawsuit, and a judge will consider this motion in a hearing in April. (A spokesperson for the Minnesota Department of Education told The American Prospect that they cannot comment on the case, but is “committed to helping every student achieve academic success.”) If the case is not thrown out—and it can be appealed, if it is—then the trial will likely be scheduled for late 2017.

“I know for a lot of leaders it’s convenient to not do anything or to not talk about these issues, but for the children who are kept separate, it’s wrong,” says Cruz-Guzman. “We feel we’re doing the right thing by bringing the lawsuit.”

Minnesota is not the first state to wrestle with the challenges of balancing school choice and desegregation. And it surely won’t be the last. Cairns, who serves on a litigation panel for the Alliance of Public Charter School Attorneys, says that he and his colleagues recognize the “wide-ranging implications” of this case. Though it’s not a federal suit, Cairns believes its outcome will be “hugely important to provide direction” to the rest of the country.