70 years post-Brown v. Education, public school access still limited

Seven decades ago this May, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its landmark Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka decision, ruling that racial segregation of children in public schools was unconstitutional.

But public school admission laws today can still legally turn students away.

A recent report analyzing current public school admission laws state by state points out areas where such laws are “breaking the promise of the Brown ruling and depriving students of all backgrounds an equal opportunity to attend public schools where they can thrive.”

“Indeed, Brown v. Board of Education was not about access to the [public school] system, but about access to an individual public school,” the report continues.

Public school enrollment preferences based on geographic location and family income level, for example, don’t reflect neutral enrollment procedures like, say, a lottery, according to the report. “American families should have legal protections that safeguard their access to the public schools.”

There is no utopian solution to the problem of public school admissions, and every possible enrollment system will pose the risk of abuse and difficult issues of implementation. That’s why the law is so important: to establish the standard of equal access to the public schools and to provide for the enforcement of that standard.

A look at Minnesota

While Minnesota’s K-12 open enrollment laws allow students to have access to schools that are not within their resident district (determined by zip code), as I have written here, there is still room for improvement given the constraints of the laws.

Below is a breakdown of Minnesota’s education laws (constitution, statutes, and significant court rulings) pertaining to public school access.

State law delegates power to districts to determine which schools students will attend

Under state law, Minnesota districts are required to provide education services to every school-age child living in the district and have the power to assign students to schools.

State law allows school assignment based on residence in a geographic zone

“The law does not prescribe how districts must assign students to schools, nor is there mentioned in state law an appeals process for families unhappy with their traditional public school assignment,” states the report.

State law does not address within-district open enrollment

While Minnesota state law addresses cross-district open enrollment, it does not mention within-district open enrollment. Within-district open enrollment policies (also called intra-district) allow families to enroll their children in any school located within their assigned resident district.

Local policies adopted by the school boards determine if and when within-district options are available, according to the Minnesota Department of Education website. Without mandatory within-district participation, students are at risk of exclusion from a nearby school with available capacity that might be a better fit. Districts are not required to post their available capacity on their websites.

State law does address cross-district open enrollment, and requires participation

Minnesota state law requires districts to participate in cross-district (also called inter-district) open enrollment, but districts are not required to post their open enrollment policies or procedures online. The district can also limit the enrollment of nonresident students to 1 percent of total enrollment at each grade level in the district or the number of district residents at that grade level enrolled outside the district, whichever is less.

Students who want to open enroll cross-district must get approval from both their resident district and the district they want to attend.

Outside of students receiving special education services, a district can reject the transfer application for capacity reasons.

But even if a school says it is “full,” “there is no procedure for challenging such a claim,” notes the report. And there is no appeals process “if a student, who otherwise meets requirements, is denied enrollment at a school in a non-resident district.”

If more students want to open enroll in a district than seats available, an “impartial lottery” is held, giving student selection priority to “enrolling siblings of currently enrolled students, students whose applications are related to an approved integration and achievement plan, children of the school district’s staff,” and students who live in a municipality that doesn’t operate a school building or is located “partially or fully within the boundaries of at least five school districts.”

No state laws governing magnet school enrollment

Minnesota has no state laws addressing magnet school admissions.


Open enrollment laws “should be rewritten to provide meaningful protections for all families, ensuring that the public schools are truly available to all,” concludes the report.

“We must guarantee every American child the right to seek admission at any public school. This simple procedural protection won’t solve the problem of unequal access, but it will increase transparency.”

-If a school denies a child enrollment, require a formal letter of denial, including the reason, and give the families the right to appeal to a neutral third party.

-Increase transparency through open enrollment data reports. While the Minnesota Department of Education (MDE) does collect information on the number of rejected transfer applications due to a lack of capacity, requiring MDE to publish additional data, such as the number of applications, the number of transfers accepted, the denial rate by reason type, etc. would bring more transparency to this policy.

-Require an equal opportunity at enrollment to any child who lives within a three-mile radius of the school. “Such a reform would eliminate the power of the district to engage in educational gerrymandering, drawing exclusionary maps and turning away students who live on the wrong side of an arbitrary line,” notes the report.