NAACP Lawsuit Could Force Proven Failure on Schools
Standing on the courthouse steps after filing their metro-wide school desegregation suit, Minneapolis NAACP officials indignantly denounced their city’s “concentrations of race and poverty.” Schools with heavily poor, minority enrollments, they insisted, cannot offer students a constitutionally mandated “adequate education.” The lawsuit just filed, they assured listeners, would put blame for this situation squarely where it belongs — on the shoulders of state officials. Though NAACP spokesmen offered few details, they hinted that their sweeping plan to fix city schools would include metro-wide busing, massive infusions of state funds, and the dissolution of some school district boundaries.
Yet the image of the NAACP as “savior of the schools” is rich with irony. For in a significant way, the NAACP itself — not hapless state bureaucrats — is to blame for the fact that Minneapolis is becoming a city of poor, minority folks, where the middle class works, but does not want to live.
In 1971, when the NAACP brought a federal suit to compel district-wide, race-based busing, Minneapolis’ minority population was 14.5%. Busing advocates insisted that the new policy, though costly and disruptive, would enhance minority achievement and racial understanding. But these promised benefits never materialized. Instead, forced busing produced massive middle-class flight, as it has nearly everywhere it’s been tried. People of all races who valued neighborhood schools packed up and left for the suburbs, taking their pocketbooks — and their commitment to education — with them.
Thanks in part to the NAACP, Minneapolis schools must now contend with a student population that is largely poor, resides in single- parent families, and is 62% minority. Scores are slipping, violence is rising, and neighborhoods are coming apart at the seams.
Today, the NAACP brings us Round Two of this process. Its updated plan for our children turns on expanding to the entire metro area a policy that has already failed in Minneapolis. What evidence is there that the NAACP — whose grand schemes have left havoc in their wake across the nation — is likely to get it right this time?
If NAACP officials are serious about “adequate education,” they could learn a thing or two from Wellington Webb, Denver’s black mayor. The week before the NAACP filed suit here, Webb was celebrating his city’s release from a 21-year-old busing order that emptied Denver of its middle class.
“Black neighborhoods were shattered by busing,” a Webb aide told the “New York Times.” Like white parents, middle-class black and Hispanic parents responded to loss of their neighborhood schools by flocking to suburban or Catholic institutions. Today, though Denver spends $7,300 per student (the equivalent of tuition at exclusive private schools), the “Rocky Mountain News” has labeled city schools a “public embarrassment.” Scores have stagnated, graduation rates have plunged, and disciplinary suspensions have tripled in the last ten years.
Despite two decades of busing, some Denver schools are now over 90% black. But metro-wide busing is the last thing Wellington Webb wants. He sees strong neighborhood schools as the best way to boost minority achievement, and to attract the middle class back to the city. According to a school district official, at the nine elementary schools that have suspended busing, “Enrollments are up, parental involvement is up.” “Many families are concerned that they cannot attend school meetings,” Webb observes. “Having neighborhood schools back helps us to rebuild the neighborhoods.”
Nearly three decades of evidence supports Webb’s belief that race-based busing has little effect on minority academic achievement. City/suburb busing has failed to dent the learning gap in perfectly racially-balanced cities like Wilmington, Delaware, where city and suburban school districts were merged 15 years ago. The story is similar in Milwaukee, St. Louis, Kansas City and Hartford, Connecticut, which have large voluntary busing programs. Costly compensatory programs have also tended to produce meager gains. In San Francisco, for example, some poorly performing schools have spent $1 million in supplemental funds, only to see scores decline.
Despite overwhelming evidence of busing’s failure, the NAACP claims to have the law on its side in its metro desegregation suit against the State of Minnesota. Dan Shulman, the NAACP’s Minneapolis attorney, describes the organization’s “educational adequacy” action as an “old-fashioned-type lawsuit.” In fact, it is nothing of the kind. The suit — based on a tenuous state constitutional theory — is a last-ditch attempt to end-run both the democratic process and the federal courts, which have firmly and repeatedly rejected the ideas on which it is based.
In their “adequacy” suit, NAACP lawyers will ask a state court judge to radically redefine fundamental concepts of federal civil rights law. Should the judge comply, the effect will be to create — out of thin air — onerous new legal obligations on the part of both state and school authorities.
Specifically, NAACP lawyers will probably seek a ruling that Minneapolis schools are “segregated,” simply because their enrollment is 62% minority. Federal law views racial imbalance as benign, and prohibits only imbalances caused by intentional government discrimination. Subsequently, the NAACP will try to persuade the court that racial and socioeconomic “separation” causes the racial learning gap — a theory the U.S. Supreme Court recently rejected. Finally, lawyers will ask the court to redefine “equal educational opportunity” in a way that obliges education officials to achieve equal results across racial and socioeconomic groups.
The NAACP has already advanced these theories in Sheff v. O’Neill, the only other “educational adequacy” case to date in which plaintiffs have sought a race-based remedy. Sheff — brought by the NAACP and the Hartford School Board — concerned the Hartford, Connecticut schools, which are 93% minority. The NAACP’s Connecticut case raised many of the issues central to its Minnesota suit, including housing and poverty-related claims. Yet after deliberating for six years, the Sheff judge emphatically rejected their arguments, and the case is now on appeal.
No one knows how the NAACP’s “educational adequacy” suit will fare in a Minnesota state court. But overwhelming evidence suggests that metro-wide desegregation will do little to help poor minority children. Not surprisingly, a recent poll found that 75% of Minnesotans view neighborhood schools as central to their children’s academic well-being. Sadly, Twin Cities parents seem to know something the NAACP doesn’t.
— Katherine Kersten is chairman of Center of the American Experiment in Minneapolis and a commentator for National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered.”